The best prison books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about prison and why they recommend each book.

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Partial Justice

By Nicole Hahn Rafter,

Book cover of Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

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.

Partial Justice

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…


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

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

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

What is my book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system – the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier.

Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light anxieties and other challenges of nineteenth-century prison administration that helped embed our prison system as we know it today.

Lockdown (Escape from Furnace)

By Alexander Gordon Smith,

Book cover of Lockdown (Escape from Furnace)

Although this novel is not necessarily ‘apocalyptic,’ I couldn’t help but include it. Alexander Gordon Smith’s Lockdown is a high-stakes novel that follows Alex, a teenager who is wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to an underground prison. The Furnace Penitentiary is not a normal prison, but is a building where inhumane experiments take place. I’ve always been fascinated by characters who have to survive in an environment they cannot physically leave, and the Escape from Furnace series does this beautifully.

Lockdown (Escape from Furnace)

By Alexander Gordon Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lockdown (Escape from Furnace) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Prison Break meets Darren Shan in an unforgettable story of terror, evil and intrigue. Alexander Gordon Smith's cult teen series has been reissued with the bestselling US covers.

Beneath heaven is hell.
Beneath hell is Furnace.

When thirteen-year-old Alex is framed for murder, his life changes forever. Now he is an inmate in the Furnace Penitentiary - the toughest prison in the world for young offenders. A vast building sunk deep into the ground, there's one way in and no way out.

But rowdy inmates and sadistic guards are the least of Alex's problems. Every night an inmate is taken…

Who am I?

Apocalyptic novels have always been a favorite genre of mine. It’s interesting seeing the lengths that people will go through to survive when all factors are stacked against them. The list of novels below is some of the many great reads that opened my eyes to this genre. The characters in these novels are oftentimes faced with challenges that seem impossible to the reader but are left feeling so fulfilled after seeing a character complete the difficult tasks. I hope you enjoy the books on this list as much as I have!


I wrote...

Briskwood Blood Rain

By Christopher Joubert,

Book cover of Briskwood Blood Rain

What is my book about?

When Miles Parker walks into one of his final classes of high school, the only thing on his mind is how poorly he is about to do on a Literature quiz he didn’t study for. Then, his teacher dies – and vanishes – in front of him. He thinks his day can’t get any stranger. He’s wrong. 

When severe weather roars into the small city of Briskwood and school is canceled for the rest of the day, Miles thinks nothing of it. Then, the rain suddenly turns red and mutates people into yellow-eyed, spike-covered creatures, hell-bent on terrorizing anything that moves. With the blood rain cutting off access to many necessary resources, Miles must use his limited supplies to fight an enemy that is much stronger than he is. 

American Prison

By Shane Bauer,

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

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. 

American Prison

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

By Mneesha Gellman,

Book cover of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

What is my book about?

This book seeks to address some of the major issues faced by faculty who are teaching college classes for incarcerated students. This volume brings together scholars who articulate some of the best practices for teaching their expertise inside prison alongside honest reflections on the reality of educational implementation in a constrained environment. The book provides essential guidance about teaching in prisons, and also places the work of higher education in prisons in philosophical context with regard to racial, economic, social, and gender-based issues. Rather than solely a how-to handbook, this book helps readers think through the trade-offs that happen when teaching in prison, and about how to ensure the full integrity of college access for incarcerated students.

Monster

By Walter Dean Myers,

Book cover of Monster

This one’s the fastest read of the bunch; in fact, you may find yourself rebooting for a second savory read without putting it down. Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon faces a life sentence for his alleged participation in a robbery that killed a convenience store owner. To cope with the horrors of his cell block, where the spirited African American teen is housed until his trial ends, Steve recounts events before and after the crime in the form of a screenplay; this enthralling courtroom drama deep-dives into the racial and economic forces responsible for overcrowding our flawed criminal justice system. Steve’s perseverance against odds is truly inspiring.  

Monster

By Walter Dean Myers,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Monster as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Since I began reading seriously (albeit late in life!), I’ve been seduced by the travails of underdog protagonists trying to save their own lives through transformation. If you had told me when I was a teenager—drinking too much, racing muscle cars, and scraping by with Ds and Cs in a vocational high school—that I would end up teaching writing at a university, I would’ve said you were nuts. It wasn’t until I started college in my mid-twenties that I actually read a novel for the pleasure of it. My novel and short story collection are expressions of my cheering on the young underdogs who bravely fight to change their worlds despite all odds.  


I wrote...

Spark and the Drive

By Wayne Harrison,

Book cover of Spark and the Drive

What is my book about?

Justin Bailey is seventeen when he arrives at the shop of legendary muscle car mechanic Nick Campbell. Anguished and out of place among the students at his rural Connecticut high school, Justin finds in Nick, his captivating wife Mary Ann, and their world of miraculous machines the sense of family he has struggled to find at home. But when Nick and Mary Ann's lives are struck by tragedy, Justin's own world is upended. Suddenly Nick has lost his touch. Mary Ann has turned distant. As Justin tries to support his suffering mentor, he finds himself drawn toward the man's grieving wife. Torn apart by feelings of betrayal, Justin must choose between the man he admires more than his own father and the woman he yearns for. 

In the Belly of the Beast

By Jack Henry Abbott,

Book cover of In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison

After the news came out that Norman Mailer was writing a book about the life of Gary Gilmore, which came to be his magnum opus, The Executioner’s Song, he received a letter from a convict named Jack Henry Abbott. An avid reader of philosophy and literature who was also serving a life sentence, Abbott wrote to warn the renowned author against misapprehending American prisons and to teach him how to write about the violence of incarceration. The two men exchanged long, detailed letters. Eventually, Mailer collected Abbott’s letters in this book. In his letters, in a tone both detached and lyrical, Abbott writes unforgettably about what spending long years in prison does to one’s soul and body. In my view, the letter on solitary confinement is the finest and most harrowing chapter of this book.  

In the Belly of the Beast

By Jack Henry Abbott,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

As a writer and journalist in Iran, I knew many activists and journalists who spent time in solitary confinement. I noticed that this part of their prison experience was the hardest one for them to put to words, even those keen on sharing their experiences have a much easier time talking about the interrogation room but remain strangely reticent about the solitary cell. When I set out to write a novel about a bus driver who ends up in jail, I decided to dedicate several chapters of the book to his time in solitary confinement. That research sent me down the rabbit hole of interviewing former prisoners and reading widely about the solitary experience.


I wrote...

Then the Fish Swallowed Him

By Amir Ahmadi Arian,

Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

What is my book about?

Yunus Turabi, a bus driver in Tehran, leads an unremarkable life. A solitary man since the unexpected deaths of his father and mother years ago, he is decidedly apolitical—even during the driver’s strike and its bloody end. But everyone has their breaking point, and Yunus has reached his.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, he is taken to the infamous Evin prison for political dissidents. Inside this stark, strangely ordered world, his fate becomes entwined with Hajj Saeed, his personal interrogator. Yunus endures a mind-bending cycle of solitary confinement and interrogation. As Yunus struggles to hold on to his sanity and evade Saeed’s increasingly undeniable accusations, he must eventually make an impossible choice: continue fighting or submit to the system of lies upholding Iran’s power.

Book cover of You Don't Have to Die in the End

You Don’t Have to Die in the End is just the sort of book I’d hand to a student who struggled with finding anything relatable. Eugenia Grimm could be down to her last chance when she is sent to Reason’s Wait, a facility for troubled teens. Because of her troubled past, she has programmed herself to lock horns with any adult who tries to cross—or help—her. I cringed during her tempestuous exchanges with social workers, staff, and fellow “inmates”—hoping one of them would find a way to save this bitter, angry girl from herself. Spoiler alert: As Daher’s title suggests, Eugenia’s train wreck of a life is salvaged in the end.

You Don't Have to Die in the End

By Anita Daher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked You Don't Have to Die in the End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

One of my favourite sounds is teens interacting—especially when they are throwing shade. I spent twenty-five years as a junior and senior high teacher, and I miss rocking and rolling during class discussions with my students. As a writer of contemporary fiction (actually in anything I write), I work hard at using dialogue as an engine to drive each scene. Each line needs to be refined to ensure that it’s snappy, engaging, and real. I’m a writer from southeast Saskatchewan, Canada, where there’s no shortage of great one-liners to use. I hope you enjoy the dialogue in these five recommendations as much as I did.


I wrote...

Power Plays

By Maureen Ulrich,

Book cover of Power Plays

What is my book about?

Jessie McIntyre, fourteen, is new to Estevan Junior High, and she’s having trouble fitting in. By signing her up with the local girl's hockey team, her parents hope to give her a fresh start and help her make new friends, but bullies can be found everywhere—including the dressing room. Power Plays is a gritty tale sprinkled with humour, heart-pounding hockey action, life lessons, and positive female role models.

“Ulrich demonstrates that there are many ways to succeed in relationships without resorting to any sort of bullying. She stresses the importance of accepting and celebrating the differences between people rather than using them as an excuse for malicious behaviour. This is an excellent novel which provides lots of action, a little romance, and a great deal to think about.” - CM Magazine

Games Criminals Play

By Bud Allen, Diana Bosta,

Book cover of Games Criminals Play: How You Can Profit by Knowing Them

Manipulation is a simple art.

I require all students and mentees to read this book and keep it on their shelves. It is an easy read and contains information that will keep future law enforcement officers safe from inmate behavior. Civilians can apply these skills to everyday life to protect themselves as well. We call it “the trick bag”, falling for a simple ruse and landing as a pawn in an inmate’s game in prison. The “game” is a series of manipulations over time that might lead to the target’s incarceration, loss of job, and public humiliation. 

This book is an effective tool for offender management and exposing criminal scams. The examples are accurate and anyone can use the tools it discusses. The authors discuss the anatomy of the setup, susceptibility profiles of both inmate and target, survival traits, and more. It can start with a pencil and end with…

Games Criminals Play

By Bud Allen, Diana Bosta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Games Criminals Play as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I am an award-winning true crime author, criminologist, and victims advocate who has written and presented on crime for over 30 years. I know that history teaches us how and why crime occurs and why it will happen again, but crime doesn't happen in a vacuum. History, personality, and human nature all play a part. There is always a "story behind the story." I appreciate true crime books that teach us rather than sensationalize. The faster we share knowledge, the easier it is to catch criminals.


I wrote...

When Nashville Bled: The untold stories of serial killer Paul Dennis Reid

By Judith A. Yates,

Book cover of When Nashville Bled: The untold stories of serial killer Paul Dennis Reid

What is my book about?

He was evil personified. In the Spring of 1997, a serial killer held Nashville, Tennessee in an icy grip of terror. Paul Dennis Reid, Jr. was caught and sentenced to seven death sentences, yet a new chapter began in the saga of one of the most heinous serial killers in our time, and the people whose lives he cut short. The victims were reduced to being called "the victims of Paul Reid." Until now. Here, for the first time, and with the approval of the family and friends, are the stories of those innocent, young people whose lives were ended far too soon. It is also the story of how a crime ripped a city apart.

The Crisis of Imprisonment

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

Book cover of The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941

In The Crisis of Imprisonment, McLennan examines the role of labor in the early prisons through to the Second World War. Labor was central to the motivation for adopting prisons, but also to their regular routines and functioning. After the Civil War, however, labor unions and others opposed to prisoner labor became more effective at restricting the sale of prisoner-made products, which helped to undermine the order of prisons.

The second half of the book explores the question of how do you maintain order in prisons if its central lynchpin is no longer available. It also has rich discussions on resistance and protests both inside and outside of prisons (not everyone wanted prisons, even early on, or liked how they were organized, even the people running them) and on the origin of prisoners’ “civil death” or rights-less status. Bonus: I love the introduction to this book. The prison riot…

The Crisis of Imprisonment

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Crisis of Imprisonment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

America's prison-based system of punishment has not always enjoyed the widespread political and moral legitimacy it has today. In this groundbreaking reinterpretation of penal history, Rebecca McLennan covers the periods of deep instability, popular protest, and political crisis that characterized early American prisons. She details the debates surrounding prison reform, including the limits of state power, the influence of market forces, the role of unfree labor, and the 'just deserts' of wrongdoers. McLennan also explores the system that existed between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, where private companies relied on prisoners for labor. Finally, she discusses the…

Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

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

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

What is my book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system – the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier.

Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light anxieties and other challenges of nineteenth-century prison administration that helped embed our prison system as we know it today.

Apology

By Gary Beacom,

Book cover of Apology

There are plenty of skating autobiographies out there. There is only one by an author who performed with skates on his hands, does a headstand on the ice (no hands!), who protested his low score on a figure by quitting in the middle of the championship and retiring from competitive skating then and there. And who served two years in prison while maintaining his innocence. Everyone claims to be an original these days. Beacom did it first. And he explains why.

Apology

By Gary Beacom,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

As a researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT, I first wrote two non-fiction books, Inside Figure Skating, and Sarah Hughes: Skating to the Stars (and this was before she won the Olympic Gold in 2002). With the Figure Skating Mystery series, I was finally able to tell all the juicy stories I couldn’t when I was working for television or writing non-fiction. It was very therapeutic. But I wasn’t just a writer of books about figure skating. I was a reader, too. I learned so much from the experts, especially those willing to admit how things really were, rather than how the sport would like to appear on the surface.


I wrote...

Figure Skating Mystery Series (5 Books in 1)

By Alina Adams,

Book cover of Figure Skating Mystery Series (5 Books in 1)

What is my book about?

What really happens behind the scenes of a figure skating competition - which the media doesn’t want you to see? Find out in The Figure Skating Mystery series, with professional skating videos by Ice Theatre of NY included as part of the story! Why just read about figure skating, when you can watch it, too? Written by a former researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT and based on true events. Can you guess who is supposed to be who?

Abolition for the People

By Colin Kaepernick (editor),

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

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. 

Abolition for the People

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

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

By James Kilgore,

Book cover of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

What is my book about?

Drawing on a growing body of literature and activism, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively, accessible style, author James Kilgore, who spent six years in prison himself, illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinx folk, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.

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