The ten best books about America's prisons

Categories: News, Prisons

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This week's cover story, "The Lifers Book Club," reports on the Words Beyond Bars Project, a pilot progam at the Limon Correctional Facility that puts high-security prisoners, many of them serving life sentences, in a room with volunteers to discuss great books. It's a modest effort that could transform lives -- and certainly provides an interpretation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men you won't get in your typical high school English class. One of the greatest challenges, WBB developer Karen Lausa found out, is picking the right books.

The Limon group has tackled some books that deal directly with prison experiences, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Yet they've also explored worlds well beyond their immediate frame of reference, such as Tim O'Brien's stunning Vietnam novel The Things They Carried. But what about folks on the outside, curious about the realities of life on the inside? What should they read?

That's a tough question, for several reasons. Prison literature is a vast, amorphous and largely neglected field. Many great writers, from Cervantes, Dostoyevsky and Thoreau to Wilde and Genet, were shaped to some extent by time spent in one kind of slammer or another, but they're not truly "prison writers." And there's a numbing sameness to a lot of prison memoirs by criminals turned raconteurs, as can be seen in even the best anthology of that genre, H. Bruce Franklin's Prison Writing in 20th-Century America.

Still, there are dozens of nonfiction books about prison life in these United States that tend to stay with you, like a recurrent nightmare. Some are by journalists with an unusual degree of access to that hidden world. Some are by prisoners who have become witnesses to history or spelunkers in a spiritual darkness. Here are the best ones I've found.

10. You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, Jimmy A. Lerner (2003). A corporate planner on a crazy tear that ended up in a manslaughter beef, Lerner is the ultimate newby in a tough Nevada prison, sharing a cell with a musclebound skinhead. His account of navigating the corruption, racial violence and mind-addling boredom of contemporary prison life is oddly comical and inspiring at the same time, with a strong ear and eye for the gritty details.

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9. Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver (1968). A bit heavy on ideology to be any fun, Cleaver's polemical essays from Folsom Prison remain an essential artifact of its time -- and a great example of how the black militancy movement of the 1960s filtered out of the prisons and back in. An admitted rapist turned revolutionary, Cleaver writes passionately about everything from prison life to male sexuality and his greatest mentor, Malcolm X.

8. A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago Baca (2002). Poet Baca's account of how he went to prison as an illiterate drug dealer, then found the key to his liberation in language, was an obvious choice for Lausa's book group. It has a lot to offer civilians, too, in its passion for the saving graces of reading and writing.

Continue to keep counting down our list of the ten best books about America's prisons.

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DonkeyHotay topcommenter

I can't count the number of times I've been asked what books and movies I'd recommend to get a better understanding of prison. It's the very nature and design of this world, with all the barriers both real and metaphorical, that makes getting a clear understanding difficult to gain.

Most folk's sense of this reality is formed in the dark of a movie theater or in the living room watching something like "Oz." Either way, with only a handful of exceptions, what's presented bears only a passing resemblance to the world in which I live.

In all my 30 years incarcerated, I've never seen a jeering mob of prisoners catcalling new arrivals, not even once. Sure, there's interest, and the guys on the yard do pay attention, but this most persistent trope of Hollywood just doesn't happen.

No one leaves candy on your bed to blackmail you into sexual favors, either. These things are much more straightforward in prison. Like everywhere else in the world there are gay men in here, and they become involved in relationships with other men. In some of the rougher places, more likely in the county jails, gay and effeminate men are too often forced to perform sex acts against their will. But the idea that being raped in the shower is a normal part of the prison experience simply isn't true.

While some things are grossly exaggerated, others are ludicrously minimized. Television is particularly guilty of this crime, for some reason. For instance, on the Fox show "Prison Break," after a truly vicious race riot that resulted in multiple stabbings and at least one guard seriously injured, Warden Stacy Keach announced to the block a full 24 hours lockdown and threatened a whole week more if there was further trouble. The howls of derision in this prison block were deafening. A riot of that severity would cause a lockdown of months. We get locked down for 24 hours so the guards can catch up on their paperwork.

On the HBO show "Oz" men who had raped each other, informed on each other, and even stabbed each other, later became cellmates and even road dogs. Even beside the facts that documented enemies would never again be allowed in the same prison and informants are never forgiven, the casual way these characters treated one another simply would not be tolerated in prison. Forgetting to say, "excuse me" after brushing shoulders in a tight spot can and often does result in a fistfight. More serious breaches of prison etiquette result in much more serious consequences.

I've only seen one movie portrayal of a convict that rang true to my sensibilities. Jon Voight in "Runaway Train," which otherwise was pretty fantastical, managed to capture the essence of how a regular, stand-up male prisoner conducts himself. There was a visible restraint and a barely concealed rage, which is the general truth of the prisoner, especially the long-term lifer.

Television has never come close to accuracy, to my knowledge.

Books about prison are a different matter. For those written by even well meaning psychologists there are usually numerous glaring errors and misperceptions presented as facts. Criminologists are worse, penning long, dense tomes that have little to do with my reality. (But, check out the "convict criminology" movement for a different takes on things.) Likewise, religious figures and run of the mill policy wonks tend to prescribe impossible solutions to intractable problems that make perfect sense only to someone who's never served a minute inside a cell.

It's harder to narrow down the many books written over the years by prisoners and ex-cons. The trouble with these is they are accurate only for the author's personal experiences during a strictly delimited timeframe. I've read books by prisoners that were obviously true but still had virtually no relevance to my experience. Each prison is different, and each prisoner's time is a unique series of events and circumstances.

Nevertheless, there are a few books worth reading that manage to convey the essence of time in a prison for the discerning reader.


Corrections corporation America will soon run all Colorado prisons for profit. I pray for those exploited!

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