The ten best books about America's prisons
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.
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.