The most recommended books on incarceration in the USA

Who picked these books? Meet our 6 experts.

6 authors created a book list connected to incarceration in the USA, and here are their favorite incarceration in the USA books.
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Book cover of Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

From my list on the origins of American prisons.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Why did Ashley love this book?

Prisons were originally built for men (really, white men), not for women. But women were sent to prison, just not in big enough numbers to merit their own facilities until much later. Women were also viewed as a difficult population by reformers and prison administrators alike: Women who committed crimes were deemed so morally repugnant that they could not be rehabilitated, so the routines and purposes of prisons seemed not to apply to them (prisons were originally supposed to rehabilitate their prisoners).

As a small and unprofitable population (because they were assigned unprofitable labor like sewing and laundry), women prisoners were considered especially burdensome. Using the prison histories of three differently situated states, Rafter describes the experiences of incarcerated women and how those experiences were shaped by their unique position and the biases about women criminals.

By Nicole Hahn Rafter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Partial Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Contemporary Research on crime, prisons, and social control has largely ignored women. Partial Justice, the only full-scale study of the origins and development of women's prisons in the United States, traces their evolution from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It shows that the character of penal treatment was involved in the very definition of womanhood for incarcerated women, a definition that varied by race and social class.Rafter traces the evolution of women's prisons, showing that it followed two markedly different models. Custodial institutions for women literally grew out of men's penitentiaries, starting from a separate room for…


Book cover of You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish

James Hannaham Author Of Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta

From my list on books for and about convicts and ex-convicts.

Why am I passionate about this?

Incarceration is a gigantic problem in the US, especially because of its connection to racial injustice. I have no firsthand experience with prison or the system, and yet it looms large in my imagination and my deepest fears. That should not be the case merely because I’m a Black gay American, but here we are. I feel that with the help of my mother and others, I have managed to sidestep a lot of the potential pitfalls of people’s misguided perception of my identity, but I have an active, paranoid imagination and profound survivor guilt, so I gravitate toward stories about people at who are odds with our society in ways that reflect that precarious status which allows me to explore a wide range of human experiences.

James' book list on books for and about convicts and ex-convicts

James Hannaham Why did James love this book?

Brooklyn native Lerner’s lightly fictionalized memoir is a tightly wound, observant, and even funny account of his time in a Nevada prison for involuntary manslaughter, and also a detailed tour of the contemporary American prison system.

He’s determined to tell the reader how the entire thing works, not just the day-to-day minutiae of prison life but the bigger picture about the way power moves through the guards and the legal system. It drips with sardonic wit and defiance.

It’s horrifying to consider how little experience with prison a lot of people (teenagers, often) have in thinking about their situation. If they got a hold of this book, they might avoid a whole lot of trouble.

By Jimmy A. Lerner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked You Got Nothing Coming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

Mneesha Gellman Author Of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

From my list on college in US prisons.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

Mneesha's book list on college in US prisons

Mneesha Gellman Why did Mneesha love this book?

I could not stop reading this book once I started, and I stayed up late into the night glued to its pages. Bauer, a journalist, takes us inside the prison where he got a job as a correctional officer. Through engrossing prose that pairs his daily experiences with carefully researched historical context about incarceration in the United States, Bauer shows what prisons represent in real time. 

By Shane Bauer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Prison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An enraging, necessary look at the private prison system, and a convincing clarion call for prison reform.” —NPR.org

New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018 * One of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018 * Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize * Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism * Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award * A New York Times Notable Book 

A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course…


Book cover of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

Robert L. Tsai Author Of Demand the Impossible: One Lawyer's Pursuit of Equal Justice for All

From my list on the role of race and poverty in the criminal justice system.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a law professor at Boston University who has studied and written about constitutional law, democracy, and inequality for over 20 years. I’m troubled by America’s rise to become the world’s leader in imprisoning its own citizens and the continued use of inhumane policing and punishment practices. These trends must be better understood before we can come up with a form of politics that can overcome our slide into a darker version of ourselves. 

Robert's book list on the role of race and poverty in the criminal justice system

Robert L. Tsai Why did Robert love this book?

I loved this book about the War on Crime for its deep research and historical sweep.

Hinton amasses a great deal of material about federal laws and agency priorities to go with changes in policing strategy on the ground (e.g., stop and frisk, militarization of policing equipment) to tell a disturbing story about how mass incarceration was developed as a national priority and carried out. Haunting.

By Elizabeth Hinton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Co-Winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A Wall Street Journal Favorite Book of the Year
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Favorite Book of the Year

In the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the "land of the free" become the home of the world's largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America's prison problem originated with the…


Book cover of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

James Kilgore Author Of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

From my list on mass incarceration.

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.

James' book list on mass incarceration

James Kilgore Why did James love this book?

As public awareness of mass incarceration has grown, reformers, and even law enforcement, have attempted to build alternatives, policies, and institutions they argue are alternatives to prisons and jails. These alternatives include policies like electronic monitoring, drug courts, halfway houses, lockup mental health facilities, and court supervision. In this book, Law and Schenwar systematically demolish the notion that such initiatives do anything more than widen the net of incarceration. In their view, these “alternatives” create programs and institutions based on the notion that altering the form or style of punishment will eliminate mass incarceration. Instead, they argue this requires the elimination of the paradigm of punishment and the establishment of programs outside the criminal legal system that provide freedom and opportunities for targeted populations. 

By Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prison by Any Other Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With a new afterword from the authors, the critically praised indictment of widely embraced "alternatives to incarceration"

"But what does it mean-really-to celebrate reforms that convert your home into your prison?" -Michelle Alexander, from the foreword

Electronic monitoring. Locked-down drug treatment centers. House arrest. Mandated psychiatric treatment. Data driven surveillance. Extended probation. These are some of the key alternatives held up as cost effective substitutes for jails and prisons. But in a searing, "cogent critique" (Library Journal), Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law reveal that many of these so-called reforms actually weave in new strands of punishment and control, bringing new…


Book cover of Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing & Prisons

James Kilgore Author Of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

From my list on mass incarceration.

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.

James' book list on mass incarceration

James Kilgore Why did James love this book?

If we are to reverse, dismantle, or eliminate mass incarceration we need an alternative model for addressing a reality where harm and injustice exist. We can never eliminate harm, but this book, through short writings by well-known authors constructs not only a clear case for eliminating prisons, jails, and policing but helps us to imagine how we might get to such a world through our own collective actions. Brought together by the most famous person to be banished by the National Football League, this volume stirs the soul and takes us on what may perhaps be an uncomfortable but very necessary journey. I have one essay in this book, entitled "Challenge E-Carceration" which contests the notion that electronic monitors and other punitive technologies are an alternative to incarceration. 

By Colin Kaepernick (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Abolition for the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edited by activist and former San Francisco 49ers super bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Abolition for the People is a manifesto calling for a world beyond prisons and policing.

Abolition for the People brings together thirty essays representing a diversity of voices―political prisoners, grassroots organizers, scholars, and relatives of those killed by the anti-Black terrorism of policing and prisons. This collection presents readers with a moral choice: “Will you continue to be actively complicit in the perpetuation of these systems,” Kaepernick asks in his introduction, “or will you take action to dismantle them for the benefit of a just future?”

Powered…


Book cover of Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

From my list on the origins of American prisons.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Why did Ashley love this book?

Unlike my other recommendations, this book takes a longer historical view of the prison and also provides a more sociological framework for understanding trends in penal history, focusing on the prison but also its sister punishments like parole and probation. Breaking the Pendulum focuses on the full history of the prison in the United States, from its origins to now. But more importantly, it synthesizes the state-of-the-art knowledge from punishment studies about how to think about and understand punishment: points like recognizing geographical variation rather than focusing on the national picture and recognizing that even periods that seem to be fairly homogenous in their penal policies are actually periods with a lot of hidden debate.

From there, it moves away from the standard narrative of a pendulum swinging between punitive and rehabilitative or liberal and conservative approaches to punishment to a more accurate and mixed picture, and for thinking about…

By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, Michelle Phelps

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Breaking the Pendulum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of criminal justice in the U.S. is often described as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between strict punishment and lenient rehabilitation. While this view is common wisdom, it is wrong. In Breaking the Pendulum, Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps systematically debunk the pendulum perspective, showing that it distorts how and why criminal justice changes. The pendulum model blinds us to the blending of penal orientations, policies, and
practices, as well as the struggle between actors that shapes laws, institutions, and how we think about crime, punishment, and related issues.

Through a re-analysis of more than…