15 Books About Prison, Mass Incarceration, and Prison Abolition
Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that will phase out the department’s use of private prisons.
The order threw a renewed spotlight on the prison abolition movement and the works of activists like Angela Y. Davis, who have long advocated for the abolition of prisons, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex.
We’ve gathered some of the best books from independent publishers on the subject of prison, prison reform, and prison abolition. From treatises on mass incarceration to stories that reflect the human cost of the prison industrial complex, these books serve as an excellent primer for those looking to learn more about the problem of prisons.
If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
A reflection on prison industrial complex abolition and a vision for collective liberation from organizer and educator Mariame Kaba.
What if social transformation and liberation aren’t about waiting for someone else to come along and save us? What if ordinary people have the power to collectively free ourselves? In this timely collection of essays and interviews, Mariame Kaba reflects on the deep work of abolition and transformative political struggle.
With chapters on seeking justice beyond the punishment system, transforming how we deal with harm and accountability, and finding hope in the collective struggle for abolition, Kaba’s work is deeply rooted in the relentless belief that we can fundamentally change the world. As Kaba writes, “Nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone.”
2. Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Transformative justice seeks to solve the problem of violence at the grassroots level, without relying on punishment, incarceration, or policing. Community-based approaches to preventing crime and repairing its damage have existed for centuries. However, in the punative atmosphere of contemporary criminal justice systems, they are often marginalized and operate under the radar. Beyond Survival puts these strategies front and center as real alternatives to today’s failed models of confinement and “correction.”
3. Prison by Any Other Name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
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 many of these so-called reforms actually widen the net, weaving in new strands of punishment and control, and bringing new populations, who would not otherwise have been subject to imprisonment, under physical control by the state.
As mainstream public opinion has begun to turn against mass incarceration, political figures on both sides of the spectrum are pushing for reform. But—though they’re promoted as steps to confront high rates of imprisonment—many of these measures are transforming our homes and communities into prisons instead.
4. Solitary by Albert Woodfox
Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement—in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana—all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America’s prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.
5. Making Abolitionist Worlds by The Abolition Collective
Making Abolitionist Worlds gathers key insights and interventions from today’s international abolitionist movement to pose the question: what does an abolitionist world look like? The Abolition Collective investigates the core challenges to social justice and the liberatory potential of social movements today from a range of personal, political, and analytical points of view, underscoring the urgency of an abolitionist politics that places prisons at the center of its critique and actions.
6. Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered
Although over half the people incarcerated in America today have committed violent offenses, the focus of reformers has been almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses. Danielle Sered’s brilliant and groundbreaking Until We Reckon steers directly and unapologetically into the question of violence, offering approaches that will help end mass incarceration and increase safety.
Widely recognized as one of the leading proponents of a restorative approach to violent crime, Sered asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration and argues persuasively that the needs of survivors of violent crime are better met by asking people who commit violence to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends in ways that are meaningful to those they have hurt—none of which happens in the context of a criminal trial or a prison sentence.
7. Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison edited by The Elsinore-Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice
Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison is a collection of poetry and prose by six incarcerated men, a hybrid of prison memoir, philosophy, history, policy document, and manifesto. The six authors—Fly, Faruq, Khalifa, Malakki, Oscar, and Shawn—met at the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh and came together in 2013 to form the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice. The men met weekly for years, along with writers, activists, and political leaders, and bonded over the creation of this book. Centered around the principles of restorative justice, which aims to heal communities broken by criminal and state violence through collective action, Life Sentences is more than a literary collection. It is also a how‑to guide for those who are trapped inside any community and a letter of invitation, asking readers to join with the incarcerated and their families so we can all continue to fly over walls, form loving connections with each other, and teach one another to be free.
8. Understanding Mass Incarceration by James Kilgore
Drawing on a growing body of academic and professional work, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes in plain English the many competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively and accessible style, author James Kilgore 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, Latinos, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.
9. Decarcerating America edited by Ernest Drucker
With sections on front-end approaches, as well as improving prison conditions and re-entry, the book includes pieces by leaders across the criminal justice reform movement: Danielle Sered of Common Justice describes successful programs for youth with violent offenses; Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders argues for more resources for defense attorneys to diminish plea bargains; Kathy Boudin suggests changes to the parole model; Jeannie Little offers an alternative for mental health and drug addiction issues; and Eric Lotke offers models of new industries to replace the prison economy. Editor Ernest Drucker applies the tools of epidemiology to help us cure what he calls “a plague of prisons.”
10. Prison Nation
Most prisons and jails across the United States do not allow prisoners to have access to cameras. At a moment when 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, 3.8 million people are on probation, and 870,000 former prisoners are on parole, how can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? Organized with the scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood, an expert on art’s relation to incarceration, this issue of Aperture magazine addresses the unique role photography plays in creating a visual record of a national crisis.
11. I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent by Sharon Charde
After the death of her child, a grief-stricken psychotherapist, teacher, and writer volunteers as a poetry teacher at a residential treatment facility for “delinquent” girls. Here, their mutual support nourishes and enriches each other, though not without large quantities of drama and recalcitrance.
Compelling, appealing, poignant and often hilarious, I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent chronicles the passion that grew for pushing voices out into the world. As Sharon and the girls share their losses through weekly writing, they came to realize their unlimited potential and poetic talents.
12. Hummingbird in Underworld by Deborah Tobola
At the age of forty-five, Deborah Tobola returns to her birthplace, San Luis Obispo, to work in the very prison her father worked in when he was a student at Cal Poly. But she’s not wearing a uniform as he did; she’s there to teach creative writing and manage the prison’s arts program—a dream job.
As she creates a theatre program for prisoners, Tobola finds plenty of drama off the stage as well. Inside the razor wire she finds a world frozen in the ’50s, with no contact with the outside except by telephone; officers who think prisoners don’t deserve programs; bureaucrats who want to cut arts funding; and inmates who steal, or worse. But she loves engaging prisoners in the arts and helping them discover their voices: men like Opie, the gentleman robber; Razor, the roughneck who subscribes to The New Yorker; charismatic Green Eyes, who really has blue eyes; Doo Wop, a singer known for the desserts he creates from prison fare.
Alternating between tales of creating drama in prison and Tobola’s own story, Hummingbird in Underworld takes readers on an unforgettable literary journey—one that is frank, funny, and fascinating.
13. The Classroom and the Cell by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lemont Hill
This collection of conversations between celebrity intellectual Marc Lamont Hill and famed political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is a shining example of African American men speaking for themselves about the many forces impacting their lives. Covering topics such as race, politics, hip-hop culture, education, mass incarceration, and love, their discussions shine a spotlight on some of the most pressing issues in 21st century African American life.
14. N*gga Theory by Jody David Armour
America’s criminal justice system is among the deadliest and most racist in the world and it disproportionately targets Black Americans, who are also disproportionately poor, hungry, houseless, jobless, sick, and poorly educated. By every metric of misery, this nation does not act like Black Lives Matter. In order to break out of the trap of racialized mass incarceration and relentless racial oppression, we, as a society, need to rethink our basic assumptions about blame and punishment, words and symbols, social perceptions and judgments, morality, politics, and the power of the performing arts. N*gga Theory interrogates conventional assumptions and frames a transformational new way of thinking about law, language, moral judgments, politics, and transgressive art—especially profane genres like gangsta rap—and exposes where racial bias lives in the administration of justice and everyday life.
15. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
In 2013, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island, a refugee detention centre off the coast of Australia. He has been there ever since. This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait of five years of incarceration and exile.
Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature, Australia’s richest literary prize, No Friend But the Mountains is an extraordinary account — one that is disturbingly representative of the experience of the many stateless and imprisoned refugees and migrants around the world.