The ten best books about America's prisons

Categories: News, Prisons

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3. In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, Jack Henry Abbott (1981). Norman Mailer was so taken with the rambling letters sent to him by an obscure hardcore felon that he helped get the writings published and the man released. Abbott promptly killed again, a senseless murder that sent him back to prison, where he eventually hanged himself. Yet Abbott's searing indictment of the system that raised him -- and, in his view, permanently maims prisoners and made him the monster he proved to be -- still packs a wallop.

2. Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog, Dannie M. Martin and Peter Y. Sussman (1993). Doing federal time for bank robbery, Martin teamed with San Francisco Chronicle editor Sussman to produce a series of columns that, despite prison officials' attempts to muzzle them, presented a powerful inside look at the American prison-industrial complex in the 1980s and the resulting "gulag mentality," with thousands of inmates snared by the drug war and other doomed campaigns.

1. Education of a Felon: A Memoir, Edward Bunker (2000). Bunker is best known to film buffs as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs; he also received a writing credit for the cult classic Runaway Train, in which he cameos. But he was also a serious crime novelist, writing from deep and bitter experience, and this straightforward account of his rise from juvenile delinquent to habitue of the California penal system manages to be jaw-dropping but never sensationalized. No cant, no self-pitying justification here, just a seasoned criminal coming to terms with himself through writing and reflection, and learning how to break a pattern of self-destruction stretching back to childhood.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber."

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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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