The most recommended prison books

Who picked these books? Meet our 44 experts.

44 authors created a book list connected to prison, and here are their favorite prison books.
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Book cover of The Gulag Archipelago

Lynne Viola Author Of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

From my list on Stalin’s Great Terror.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

Lynne's book list on Stalin’s Great Terror

Lynne Viola Why did Lynne love this book?

This is the classic account of the Great Terror and the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn roots Stalinist repression firmly in the Russian Revolution, blaming Marxist ideology for the camps. The literary value of this work is incontestable.

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The official, one-volume edition, authorized by Solzhenitsyn

“BEST NONFICTION BOOK OF THE 20TH CENTURY” —Time

The Nobel Prize winner’s towering masterpiece of world literature, the searing record of four decades of terror and oppression, in one abridged volume (authorized by the author). Features a new foreword by Anne Applebaum.

“It is impossible to name a book that had a greater effect on the political and moral consciousness of the late twentieth century.” —David Remnick, The New Yorker

Drawing on his own experiences before, during and after his eleven years of incarceration and exile, on evidence provided by more than 200…


Book cover of My Brother Is Away

Nora Raleigh Baskin Author Of Ruby on the Outside

From my list on stories for and about children of incarcerated parents.

Who am I?

There are 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States—more than any other country in the world —in greatly disproportionate demographic numbers. There are mandatory drug sentencing laws that put fathers and mothers, sometimes both, away for many years regardless of their actual direct involvement in a crime. I wrote this book because no matter how one feels about these laws, or these crimes, if 2.2 million adults are incarcerated, there are at least as many children without mothers or fathers. Having lost my mother to suicide there are many connections, stigma, shame, and the hardship of reconciling a mother’s love in spite of the events that took her away from me.

Nora's book list on stories for and about children of incarcerated parents

Nora Raleigh Baskin Why did Nora love this book?

I loved this book. It is one of the most heartfelt, deeply moving picture book stories about a young person with a family member who is incarcerated.

It is sensitive and subtle and it speaks to both those dealing with a similar experience, and maybe more importantly, someone to whom this topic is unfamiliar. That is a special book. The illustrations are absolutely perfect, to match the tone and sensitivity of this story. Quite a beautiful book. 

By Sara Greenwood, Luisa Uribe (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Brother Is Away as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

In this moving picture book, a young girl reflects on the emotions and challenges of growing up with a brother who is incarcerated. This touching story is filled with vivid illustrations and is based on the author’s childhood experiences.

An NCTE Charlotte Huck Award Honor Book • NPR Best Book of the Year • A Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book

With her older brother in prison, a young girl copes with the confusing feelings his absence creates. At times she remembers the way her brother would carry her on his shoulders or how he would make up stories to tell her…


Book cover of Unravelling Us

Alice Pung Author Of One Hundred Days

From my list on complicated mother and daughter relationships.

Who am I?

My parents survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, so their love for us was always tinged with anxiety, fear, and a large deal of paranoia and control. All of my books are about the complex relationship between parents and their children, and the things we knowingly or unknowingly pass down. I’ve also worked a number of years as a university student counsellor, where the same enduring themes play out in my students’ experiences. So naturally, I am drawn to stories that explore difficult but loving family dynamics. 

Alice's book list on complicated mother and daughter relationships

Alice Pung Why did Alice love this book?

Renee’s father was in jail for murder, and her mother never got over the shame. This book is about family secrets and how corrosive they can be, and also how a child survives a manipulative mother. I was floored by the wild level of pain a parent could inadvertently bestow on their child, but there is also much grace and love in this memoir. 

This book will be available May 2022.

By Renée McBryde,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A gripping memoir that reads like a psychological thriller... When Anne wakes in hospital, she is unable to recognise anyone or anything, mistaking herself for a young girl at first. She can talk but cannot remember much, including, as it turns out, the birth of her daughter, her rocky relationship with a man who is said to be her husband, and a mysterious man she feels a deep longing for but is warned against. As Anne tries to recover and piece together what has happened, fragments of memory come back but do little to help and sometimes confuse her further.…


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

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

New book alert!

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.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

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

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this 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…


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.

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.

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…


Book cover of The Enchanted

Kia Corthron Author Of The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

From my list on the intersection of race, class, and justice in America.

Who am I?

I grew up as an African American in the Maryland Appalachian valley, a town that was ninety-five percent white. My father worked for the paper mill and would bring home reams of paper, pens, pencils. I began playing with the stuff—making up stories and stapling them into books, the raw beginnings of a future novelist. Separately, I created dialogue, using clothespins as people: a burgeoning playwright. (We were not destitute—my sister and I had toys! But those makeshift playthings worked best for my purposes.) So, given my working-class racial minority origins, it was rather inevitable that I would be drawn to stories addressing class and race. 

Kia's book list on the intersection of race, class, and justice in America

Kia Corthron Why did Kia love this book?

A bookseller friend, whose opinions I highly respect, had highly recommended Rene Denfeld’s debut, so The Enchanted very quickly catapulted to the top of my To-Read List. And I was instantly enchanted by the luscious language, the urgent content, the writer’s ability to fuse metaphorical darkness and light. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the writing seamlessly flows from gritty reality to breathtaking fantasy. I wasn’t surprised to learn of Rene’s extensive time in prisons (often on death row) as a public defender’s chief investigator, or that her keen understanding of trauma in childhood came from her own firsthand experience, as the text is drenched in arresting truths, in transgression and redemption, and in the complicated and wondrous humanity of us all.

By Rene Denfeld,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'THE ENCHANTED wrapped its beautiful and terrible fingers around me from the first page and refused to let go after the last. A wondrous book... so dark, yet so exquisite.' Erin Morgentern, author of The Night Circus

A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum security prison. His only escape from his harsh existence is through the words he dreams about, the world he conjures around him using the power of language. For the reality of his world is brutal and stark. He is not named, nor do we know his crime. But he listens. He listens to the…


Book cover of Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison

Robert Uttaro Author Of To The Survivors: One Man's Journey as a Rape Crisis Counselor with True Stories of Sexual Violence

From my list on sexual violence, hope and healing.

Who am I?

God gave me a life-long calling to help anyone affected by sexual violence. Words often fail when I try to describe the pain that results from sexual abuse and what it truly means to me to make a positive difference in the lives of survivors. My heart and soul break for those who are suffering from evil crimes, and yet I continuously see people disclosing, expressing, growing, and healing. From my many years working as a counselor and advocate, I've learned that very often people just need someone to be with them and listen. I'm committed to supporting others in this area for as long as I can be helpful.

Robert's book list on sexual violence, hope and healing

Robert Uttaro Why did Robert love this book?

Fish is a powerful, detailed memoir about TJ Parsell’s incarceration in an adult prison as a teenager.

At the age of 17, Parsell chose to hold up a store with a toy gun, and that mistake led to horrific exploitation and sexual abuse by other inmates. This book deals with issues of gang rape, prison hierarchy, injustice, surviving behind bars, and Parsell’s growth into and embracing his own sexuality.

I felt sad and disgusted while reading it, however I learned so much and I believe this book is vitally important when thinking about prison systems, sentencing, and prison rape. Parsell was eventually released from prison, and he has dedicated so much of his life to prison reform, prevention of sexual violence, and helping survivors.  

By T. J. Parsell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When seventeen-year-old T. J. Parsell held up the local Photo Mat with a toy gun, he was sentenced to four and a half to fifteen years in prison. The first night of his term, four older inmates drugged Parsell and took turns raping him. When they were through, they flipped a coin to decide who would "own" him. Forced to remain silent about his rape by a convict code among inmates (one in which informers are murdered), Parsell's experience that first night haunted him throughout the rest of his sentence. In an effort to silence the guilt and pain of…


Book cover of Monster

Wayne Harrison Author Of Spark and the Drive

From my list on coming of age unstoppable, underdog protagonists.

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.  

Wayne's book list on coming of age unstoppable, underdog protagonists

Wayne Harrison Why did Wayne love this book?

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.  

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. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

This New York Times bestselling novel from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial.

Presented as a screenplay of Steve's own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.

Monster is a multi-award-winning, provocative coming-of-age story that was the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award recipient, an ALA Best Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor selection, and a National Book Award finalist.

Monster is now a major motion picture called All Rise and starring Jennifer Hudson, Kelvin Harrison,…


Book cover of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Nicholas Hudson Author Of A Political Biography of Samuel Johnson

From my list on why the Enlightenment is the beginning of the modern world.

Who am I?

As a teacher and writer, I am a passionate believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment. In my understanding of these ideals, they include a belief in reason and honest inquiry in the service of humanity. More and more we need these ideals against bigotry, self-delusion, greed, and cruelty. The books recommended here are among those that helped to inspire me with continued faith in the progress of the human species and our responsibility to help each other and the world we live in.

Nicholas' book list on why the Enlightenment is the beginning of the modern world

Nicholas Hudson Why did Nicholas love this book?

This book has perhaps the best opening of any history book ever written. This is a detailed and gruesome description of the public torture and mutilation of Robert-François Damien in 1757.

The description is meant to shock, for it illustrates the difference between a modern attitude towards punishment and the idea of punishment that prevailed in the French ancien régime before the Revolution of 1789. Today we generally see punishment not as a means to display the state’s anger against those who defy its authority but rather as a means to improve society and even rehabilitate the offender.

This book opened my eyes to the modern world very much. It shows how political and social power transformed during the eighteenth century into the forms of discipline and surveillance that govern our lives today. We may not be threatened with public torture but every aspect of our behavior is shaped to…

By Michel Foucault,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Discipline and Punish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant work from the most influential philosopher since Sartre.

In this indispensable work, a brilliant thinker suggests that such vaunted reforms as the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have merely shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner's body to his soul.


Book cover of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Joanna Schwartz Author Of Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable

From my list on the human toll of the criminal justice system.

Who am I?

Stories of people impacted by the criminal justice system have been key to my understanding of the system and my efforts to reform it. I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer when, in law school, I represented a woman who was raped by a corrections officer in a federal prison in Connecticut. My experiences suing the police and corrections officers as a young lawyer in New York inspired 15+ years researching the realities of civil rights litigation and barriers to achieve justice. I believe that the best way to understand the realities of the criminal justice system is through the experiences of people trying to make their way through it.

Joanna's book list on the human toll of the criminal justice system

Joanna Schwartz Why did Joanna love this book?

Ted Conover, a journalist, wanted to better understand life as a corrections officer.

After Conover’s request to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Officer Academy was denied, he decided to apply to become a corrections officer himself—and was hired.

Conover spent a year working as a corrections officer at Sing Sing, and his insights about the chaos, lack of training, and harsh culture at the institution—and the impact that serving as a corrections officer had on him psychologically and on relationships with his loved ones—were eye-opening. 

By Ted Conover,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

After he was denied access to report on Sing Sing, one of America's most notorious high security jails, journalist Ted Conover applied to become a prison guard. As a rookie officer, or 'newjack', Conover spent a year in the unpredictable, intimidating and often violent world of America's penal system.

Unarmed and outnumbered, prison officers at one of America's toughest maximum security jails supervise 1,800 inmates, most of whom have been convicted of violent felonies: murder, manslaughter, rape. Prisoners conceal makeshift weapons to settle gang rivalries or old grudges, and officers are often attacked or caught in the crossfire. When violence…


Book cover of Writing Within Walls: Stories, poems and articles of hope by people in custody and on probation

Stephen Jackley Author Of Just Time: A Journey Through Britain's Fractured Justice System

From my list on the power of redemption.

Who am I?

Having spent a total of 7 years in 12 UK prisons (and 6 in the USA), I encountered so many people from all walks of life who found themselves in custody. What they all generally had in common was a desire to seek betterment – redemption – for even the repeat offenders never hoped to see the inside of another jail again. It can be a soul-destroying, depressing place, often ruthless, but also serves as a forge to draw out the perseverance and will to keep going. After leaving prison, I went on to set up a social enterprise, received a commendation from then Prince Charles, and support the daily operations of a charity (Arkbound). 

Stephen's book list on the power of redemption

Stephen Jackley Why did Stephen love this book?

It’s sometimes quite tricky to find a collection of short works that seamlessly cover the same topic and advance it in different ways, showing various perspectives.

In this book, there are twenty different contributors – all with direct experience of being in prison or on probation – and each piece explores what ‘hope’ really means. Such a powerful and important word, yet different for everyone; nonetheless pushing us all onwards when times are darkest.

Without hope, there is really no redemption, for it requires the ability to look ahead and see something or someone better. Seeing creative work from many different people in prison writing about such an important subject felt very rewarding, and the fact that all contributors also won a prize as part of a national writing competition bolstered the book’s impact.

By Arkbound Foundation (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Stories, poems and articles of hope by people in custody and on probation, edited by the Arkbound Foundation.

Prison. It is a word that conjures up loss, bleakness and despair. A place where those who have broken the law are kept, both for punishment and for the safety of society. But behind these images are human stories, accounts of tragic mistakes and broken lives, woven in-between with hope. For those inside prison, it is hope that often keeps them going: for the future, for those they care for, and for the chance to start afresh upon release.