7 Best Books About Prison Life Update 05/2022

Calling for an end to police brutality isn’t the only thing protesters have been saying since the death of George Floyd. They’ve also been calling attention to another problem that mostly affects people of color: mass prison. If you look at the Prison Policy Initiative, there are 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States. That’s 20% of all the people in prison in the world. Even though Black people only make up 13% of the U.S. population, 40% of prisoners are Black. Millions more people are on probation or parole, which means they can’t live where they want, work, or vote in many states. This isn’t a new problem, just like police violence against people of color isn’t new. Some activists and scholars, like Angela Davis, have been fighting to get prisons out of the way for a long time now. But if you want to learn more, we asked 11 scholars, lawyers, and activists what books they recommend for people who want to learn more.

There are 14 books on this list that have been recommended by at least two of our experts, as in all of our lists. These titles talk about the history of our prison system, the people who have been affected by it, and the people who are now fighting back. There are a lot of overlaps and intersections between the topics of the books we’ve put together, so it’s important to keep that in mind. For example, a book about the history of prison in the United States is bound to talk about race. A book about race and prison will also talk about resistance movements.

Books on the origins and history of prison

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

To get a better sense of the philosophy behind today’s prisons, four of our experts recommend Discipline and Punish, a book that looks at the history of corporal punishment and torture, as well as today’s “enlightened” incarceration system that, as Chase says, “requires a disciplining of the mind.” Foucault doesn’t like the idea that modern prisons are humane because he says that so-called reformers have instead set up a “carceral network” that spreads through all parts of society, including schools, businesses, and the military. This “carceral network” disempowers people while keeping social norms in place. For anyone who wants to learn more about how the modern punishment system came to be, Discipline and Punish is a good place to start. Butler says that this book is “dense, hard to read, but worth the investment,” and that it’s the most theoretical on this list.

“Worse than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David M. Oshinsky

When Oshinsky looks at the history of Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison, he shows how convict-leasing practices and harsh conditions for mostly Black prisoners led to a system of racial subjugation and forced labor that wasn’t all that different from slavery. Adler says that this “phenomenal book” is always a favorite of his students because it uses blues songs and other non-traditional sources like folklore and oral history to tell the story of this gruesome chapter in American history. Manion says it’s a “classic” in showing how punishment after slavery was a lot like slavery.

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa

Putting the myth that only law-and-order Republicanism is to blame for the huge number of people in prison in the United States is what Simonson’s book, The First Civil Right, does. Adler also likes this book. During Democratic administrations from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bill Clinton, policies were put in place to protect people of color from violence and police brutality, but they actually led to the racial disparity in prisons in the United States. Progressives should read this book, says Simonson. “If we want to break out of our current status quo, we need to move away from traditional liberal values,” says Simonson.

City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández

“This is an incredible project,” Gross says. “It’s a deep, generative dive into the history of Los Angeles’s sprawling prison system through the voices of those who built it, but also, and more importantly, through the voices of those who opposed it.” The city’s incarceration policies go back to the colonial era, and Lytle Hernández says that what we have now is “a vestige of this Anglo-invasion of the far west and this kind of settler rule.” If you want to know how “jails are used to erase people from urban landscapes,” you need to read City of Inmates, says Chase. It talks about how the system has been used to suppress different groups over time: Native Americans when white settlers came, then Mexican immigrants and Black people later on.

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag also talks about how California has played a big role in the rise in incarceration in the United States, from 1980 to the present, and how capitalism is fueling the system. If I had to pick one book on the modern prison system, I would say this is the most important one. Simonson says that the book has “gripping stories of prison towns and communities where prisons become a commodity, prison jobs are the only way to work, and incarceration seems to be a political economic necessity.” As Smith says, “Gilmore’s definition of racism has become more and more important for those of us who want to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and the prison crisis are linked by racial inequalities.” That doesn’t mean Gilmore doesn’t believe that in the end, as Simonson says, “this is not inevitable, that in collective struggle this can change.” It will happen when prisons are abolished, but “Golden Gulag will be one of the reasons why.”

Books on prison resistance and abolition movements

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

It’s one of the most popular books on our list, and in it, a scholar and activist called Angela Davis “makes a powerful case for abolishing prison.” One of the main texts of the prison abolition movement, Simonson says. Smith calls it the movement’s “manifesto,” and that’s what he calls it. Gross says that Davis’s book is unique because it “encourages readers to think about alternatives to prison, especially by addressing the broader structural issues that are driving mass incarceration.” Gabbidon says that “Professor Davis says that this movement, like other abolition movements in the United States, may seem radical at first, but after some hard work, it has the power to change society.” It is only possible to make progress in society and achieve racial equality by picturing a world that doesn’t exist, Chase says. Because the world we live in is one that is based on systematic racism, this is the only way to make progress in society.

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era by Dan Berger

“The definitive study of prison activism,” says Hinton. Dan Berger places the mass incarceration of Black people at the heart of the civil-rights movement. He says the book shows “how Black Panthers and civil rights activists were punished by the state, and also how prisons became important places for organizing for the rights of all people.” He says Berger “convincingly argues that we must think of the civil rights movement as a movement against the carceral state and a far more broad critique of America as a prison.” Chase thinks that Berger’s book is very important for understanding how Black people resist the prison system and fight for their own freedom.

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