The best books about prisoners

21 authors have picked their favorite books about prisoners and why they recommend each book.

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Moonless Night

By B.A. 'Jimmy' James,

Book cover of Moonless Night: Wartime Diary of a Great Escaper

This is the autobiography of the man I consider the most determined escaper of WW2. Jimmy James was a serial escaper. One of the 76 men who broke out of Stalag Luft 3 in The Great Escape, he was recaptured and was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  Using a spoon, he dug a tunnel and escaped from there!  This is one of the bravest stories I've ever read of determination to succeed at any cost.

Who am I?

My father, Squadron Leader Peter Stevens MC, died in 1979, when I was 22 years old, before I'd had the chance to speak with him man-to-man about his war. I later began researching his wartime exploits, which would consume a good part of 18 years of my life. I initially had no intention of writing a book; I just wanted to find the original document that recommended him for the Military Cross. I finally located it in Britain's National Archives in 2006. Along the way, I discovered that my father had actually been born a German Jew (he had told his immediate family in Canada that he was British and Anglican), and that some 15-20 family members had been murdered in the Holocaust. Further research showed that Dad had been the ONLY German-Jewish bomber pilot in the RAF, and that he had been the object of a country-wide manhunt by the British Police as a possible enemy spy. 

I wrote...

Escape, Evasion and Revenge

By Marc H. Stevens,

Book cover of Escape, Evasion and Revenge

What is my book about?

The true-life story of the only German-Jewish bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War 2.  Georg Hein was sent to safety in London by his widowed mother in 1934; he committed identity theft in order to enlist at the outbreak of hostilities, stealing the name of a dead London high schoolmate, Peter Stevens.  He trained to become a bomber pilot, and flew 22 combat missions before his plane was damaged by flak over Berlin.

Captured by the Nazis 12 hours after he landed in a Dutch farmer's field, he spent the next 3 years and 8 months as a POW in his own country, without ANY protection whatsoever under the Geneva Convention.  Had the Nazis ever discovered his true identity, the consequences would have proven unpleasantly fatal.  Escape became his raison d'etre, and he made 9 escape attempts, getting outside the wire on three occasions. After the war, Stevens was one of only 69 members of RAF aircrew to be awarded Britain's Military Cross for gallantry in WW2. He went on to serve 5 years as an MI6 spy in East Germany at the height of the Cold War.

Visiting Day

By Jacqueline Woodson, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Visiting Day

Lyrical and moving, this picture book is one of Woodson’s many gems. We witness a child’s excitement and attention as she carefully prepares for the one day a month when she meets her loving father who is incarcerated. We share her anticipation, see her grandmother’s affection, and also glimpse the depth of her father’s longing to see his family. The book’s climax will bittersweet – we sense the joy of reunion but it is tinged with the knowledge of imminent separation. An insightful and deeply touching portrayal of how familial love endures, despite the harsh reality of incarceration.

Who am I?

Over 5 million children in the United States have had at least one parent in a correctional facility at one time or another. These children, and their parents, are our neighbors, our family, our friends. We might see them at a soccer match, or sit beside them at public libraries, or gather together with them regularly in prayer. They need to see themselves portrayed in a meaningful manner in the books they read. This shortlist includes two picture books, a middle-grade novel, and two young adult titles. I'm passionate about books on this topic because equity and inclusiveness and vital to me; and because I think excellent books such as these may enable us to start nuanced discussions and enhance our compassion. 

I wrote...

Born Behind Bars

By Padma Venkatraman,

Book cover of Born Behind Bars

What is my book about?

Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born, because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s never met his dad, so the only family he’s got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost “uncle” who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can–run away as fast as his legs will take him.

How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way?

The Last Detail

By Darryl Ponicsán,

Book cover of The Last Detail

In the early 1970s, when I was a Buck Sergeant in the US Army stationed overseas in Korea, I received a small package from my cousin. He was a year older than me and in the Navy and stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines. What was odd about the package was that he seldom mailed me anything, and certainly nothing that would be more trouble than a brief letter. I opened the package and therein lay a paperback copy of The Last Detail.

The story starts out with Petty Officer First Class William Buddusky, better known as Billy Bad-Ass, passed out drunk in the Day Room in the barracks, still in dress uniform with an almost empty bottle of cheap wine next to him. Immediately, I recognized a kindred spirit. A lifer, an enlisted man, and somebody who lived in the real world of the military as I…

Who am I?

I spent 20 years in the US Army with 10 of those years in Korea. Everybody thought I was crazy. Why would you like being stationed in such an odd country as Korea? Whenever I tried to explain, their noses would crinkle and they’d stare at me as if I were mad. I started collecting books that explained better than I did. To supplement it I purchased a manual Smith Corona typewriter at the PX and to assuage my angst began writing mystery stories about two 8th Army investigators in Seoul, Korea. Fifteen novels and over 50 short stories later I’m still attempting to explain the odd beauty of GI life through the eyes of a GI.

I wrote...

War Women

By Martin Limón,

Book cover of War Women

What is my book about?

Sergeant George Sueño and his partner, Ernie Bascom, are stationed in Korea with the US 8th Army in the 1970s. They investigate crimes in which US Army personnel might have been involved. Meanwhile, George finds Korea and its culture fascinating, and does what he can to soften the bad opinion of Americans in Korea.

When a senior NCO goes missing with a top-secret document that even a glance at could get a soldier court-martialed, Sergeants Sueño and Bascom take it upon themselves to find him. Meanwhile, they are tasked with getting reporter Katie Byrd Worthington out of a Korean jail cell—and preventing the publication of a story about the mistreatment of women in the military that could incriminate important officials. But what they learn will make it hard for them to stay silent.

The Girl Next Door

By Jack Ketchum,

Book cover of The Girl Next Door

Reading this book was one of the most intense experiences of my life and I will never forget reading it. Based on a true story of the extreme abuse of a young girl by an evil aunt and some neighborhood kids, this book makes you feel like you were actually present at the crime. While most books I read are tame in comparison, this book is truly and uniquely disturbing and deserving of its reputation as a top-notch horror novel.

Who am I?

My experience and expertise – I am not only a reader of horror, in particular extreme horror, but I am a published writer with several hundred writing credits. I have had hundreds of stories and articles published on many websites, magazines, and anthologies including a story in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5. For eleven years I wrote articles on the bizarre and morbid for Girls and Corpses magazine. I have been consistently writing for 20 years, and have also helped write several independent horror films. I have written many reviews and interviews as well, most recently in Phantasmagoria Magazine.

I wrote...

Hurting My Toys: Spiritual Suicide

By David L. Tamarin,

Book cover of Hurting My Toys: Spiritual Suicide

What is my book about?

Hurting My Toys is an extreme horror tale about a schizophrenic drug-addicted serial killer who cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality. In his deluded mind, he can become a God who controls the universe provided that he kills enough people. Warning - may be traumatic to some.

The Scar

By China Miéville,

Book cover of The Scar

Armada is a pirate city, populated by both mundane and outlandish citizens, and built on decommissioned vessels connected to each other by bridges. The politics of the city are fascinating as are its enigmatic rulers, the scarred Lovers. Mieville’s densely poetic prose brings the city to life and while most of the populous are background figures, there are some notable exceptions, including the Remade Tanner Sack who takes us beneath the surface of the ocean.

Magic exists as a resource, fuelling political intrigue as countries and empires battle for supremacy. The quest to control a particular form of magic drives Armada across the oceans and underpins much of the novel’s intrigue.

Unlike the other books on my list. The Scar does not deal explicitly with gender. Although the main protagonist, Bellis, is female, the world of Bas-Lag feels like a place where gender has little relevance. Bellis is an unusual…

Who am I?

I'm an anarcho-feminist who has a special interest in magic; I consider it my guilty pleasure. I write dark and gritty stories that delve into gender, trauma, and mental illness, yet discover hope and freedom in the pit of darkness. I'm best known as a horror writer, but it’s more accurate to say that I create dark-fantasy and speculative fiction. My themes reflect the darkness which feels ubiquitous in the world, especially now in this age of extremes and pandemics, but I always search for the glimmer of light, the flame of hope that we can make a better future. I've always been fascinated by the Goth aesthetic and enchanted by post-punk threnodies.

I wrote...

Starblood: The Graphic Novel

By Carmilla Voiez,

Book cover of Starblood: The Graphic Novel

What is my book about?

Satori, an arrogant yet alluring Chaos Magician, is heartbroken when Star tells him it is over. He performs a magical ritual to win her back, but accidentally brings Lilith, Mother of Demons, to Earth. How can Satori survive the demon’s wrath and reclaim the heart of his beloved?

Beautiful and vulnerable, Star has yet to discover her own power and strength. When she falls in love with the enchanting Lilith, her world descends into madness and violence. Satori’s strange world threatened her sanity, what then of Lilith’s? A sensuous story, full of dark fantasy and horror, that offers readers a glimpse into the seedier side of the Gothic subculture in Britain.


By Henri Charriere,

Book cover of Papillon

This one is fun because, first of all, it's a harrowing story of prison life and escape adventures in the French Caribbean. Not hooked yet? Well, the unreliableness of it isn't necessarily in the book, but in the question of whether the book – as Charriere always maintained – was truthfully autobiographical, or whether he just wove one hell of a tale. Did he really hide his money there? One could throw in Shantaram as another, similar, title to read in this exact genre too.

Who am I?

Benjamin Buchholz is a U.S. military diplomat who has served around the world in some of the toughest places: Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Oman. His interest in the unreliable narrator comes from two sources, like LeCarre, his love for a good spy novel where the characters, protagonist and antagonist alike, often have reasons inside of reasons to obscure their true intentions; and, the deeper psychological portrait of humans who are forced to the brink in order to survive – what does madness do, not just in terms of fracturing an identity, but also, perhaps, in allowing us to persevere through the worst of the worst. Ben's own writing explores these areas, as does the list he recommends here.

I wrote...

One Hundred and One Nights

By Benjamin Buchholz,

Book cover of One Hundred and One Nights

What is my book about?

After 13 years in America, Abu Saheeh has returned to his native Iraq, a nation transformed by American military presence. Alone in a new city, he has exactly what he wants: freedom from his past. Then he meets Layla, a whimsical fourteen-year-old girl who enchants him with her love of American pop culture. Enchanted by Layla's stories and her company, Abu Saheeh settles into the city's rhythm and begins rebuilding his life. But two sudden developments – his alliance with a powerful merchant and his employment of a hot-headed young assistant – reawaken painful memories.

A breathtaking tale of friendship, love, and betrayal, One Hundred and One Nights is an unforgettable novel about the struggle for salvation and the power of family.

A Wish in the Dark

By Christina Soontornvat,

Book cover of A Wish in the Dark

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is a retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world. I cannot say enough about the gorgeous setting details and atmosphere that support the characters in this novel. From the very first pages, I felt drawn into the world of Pong and Nok. This novel will feel familiar in theme and plot to those familiar with Victor Hugo’s classic, but it also stands alone as a new story that needs to be read and shared.

Who am I?

I grew up reading all kinds of stories, but I was also a big fan of playing outdoors. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was always a favorite of mine, but as an adult, I realized something…the one main female character who was my age, Becky Thatcher, didn’t seem to like adventure at all! I loved the idea of Becky being as much of a mischief-maker as the boys – and that became my first novel, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. I love retellings of classics and how they respect the original story, but are also able to imagine a new path! I hope all readers have adventures, inside and outside of books!

I wrote...

The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

By Jessica Lawson, Iacopo Bruno (illustrator),

Book cover of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

What is my book about?

Tom Sawyer’s and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures are legendary, but what about the story you haven’t heard? In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

But the theft doesn’t go as planned, and Widow Douglas ends up being unfairly accused of grave robbing as a result. So Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name and find a hidden cave treasure to boot! In this retelling of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Becky might just get away with it all…that is, if that tattletale Tom will quit following her around.

Eyewitness Auschwitz

By Filip Müller,

Book cover of Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers

This is a shattering account of a man who was forced to work in the gas chambers of Auschwitz for several years. Not only did he see the serial mass murder up close, but he also witnessed the failed rebellion at Crematorium IV on October 7, 1944. Müller’s writing is sparse and harrowing as he describes daily life in the Third Reich’s largest concentration camp. This is an essential document about the Holocaust and it helps the reader understand what it meant to be part of the Sonderkommando—those unfortunate prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria. This is an unforgettable and vital book.

Who am I?

I’ve dedicated most of my writing career to the Holocaust, and in order to create novels that are historically accurate, I’ve interviewed survivors, as well as done research at many of the camps. It is one thing to study Auschwitz, but it’s an entirely different thing to walk its soil. I give lectures on the Holocaust and do readings from my novels all across the country, and I view my work as a way to open discussion about what happened in Europe between 1933-1945. As I often say, just because we live in a post-Holocaust world, does not mean we have come to understand the Holocaust.

I wrote...

The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard

By Patrick Hicks,

Book cover of The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard

What is my book about?

The Commandant of Lubizec is a harrowing account of a death camp that never existed, but easily could have in the Nazi state. Told as a historical account in a documentary style, it explores the atmosphere of a death camp. It describes what it was like to watch the trains roll in, and it probes into the mind of its commandant, Hans-Peter Guth. How could he murder thousands of people each day and then go home to laugh with his children? This is not only an unflinching portrayal of the machinery of the gas chambers, it is also the story of how prisoners burned the camp to the ground and fled into the woods. It is a story of rebellion and survival. It is a story of life amid death.

Prison by Any Other Name

By Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law,

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

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. 

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.

Baa, Baa Black Sheep

By Gregory “Pappy” Boyington,

Book cover of Baa, Baa Black Sheep

The copy I read came from my dad’s collection. It was signed by the author. I don’t know how Dad knew Pappy Boyington, but years ago when Dad and I were walking through a throng of people at Oshkosh, Pappy broke away from a conversation with two very attractive women to wave and call Dad by name. A teenager at the time, I stood in utter shock and amazement while my dad talked planes with a legend. Though the book covers Pappy’s exploits before, during, and after World War II, a large segment is devoted to his time in a Japanese prison camp. One of his fellow detainees was Louis Zamperini, famous Olympic miler. 

Who am I?

As a western mystery writer, rancher, veterinarian, wife, mother, farrier, horse trainer, gardener, seamstress, pilot, homeschooler, tractor jockey, and all-around hand, I conclude that every experience in life is grist for the mill leading to settings, scenery, plots, and character motivations.

I wrote...

The Captured

By Nishi Giefer,

Book cover of The Captured

What is my book about?

Writing not Quite Forgotten involved months of research, interviews, and a lot of reading about American POWs. After I submitted the manuscript, there was so much information still banging around in my brain I felt compelled to write a second story but this time from the point of view of Sergeant Heinrich Schleisser, a German captured shortly after the Normandy Invasion and shipped to Camp Clarinda in my native Southwest Iowa.

Wounded and dazed, thousands of miles from home, worrying about his family and wondering when he would see them again, Schleisser begins to shed the war and heal his soul by thinking again about milking, planting, and building instead of killing, burning, and destroying.

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