The United States holds about 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s a shockingly-high number given that less than 5% of the world’s total population lives here. Our prison system is rife with racism, corruption, and greed. If you want to learn more about what people experience behind bars, these are the five books you need to read:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander
Lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander takes a good hard look at America’s treatment of non-whites. The history essentially breaks down into three eras: slavery, the Jim Crow era, and mass incarceration. Armed with countless studies and data, Alexander describes how people of color are imprisoned at higher rates than their white counterparts, and how once they are released, they face discrimination in every area of life. Essentially, America is using the prison system as a way to enslave and control.
Soul On Ice (1968) by Eldridge Cleaver
Challenging and controversial, Soul On Ice collects the essays of Eldridge Cleaver, an activist and revolutionary who served time in Folsom Prison for rape and attempted murder. In four sections, Cleaver explores his change from – in his words – a “supermasculine menial” to a revolutionary. He gets into his reasons for being a rapist, which he says were political, but renounces his previous logic. Critics call Soul on Ice an important work that shows how the militaristic black movement of the 1960’s moved to and fro from the prison system.
Education of a Felon: A Memoir (2001) by Edward Bunker
Famous crime novelist Edward Bunker reveals how he gets his inspiration in this no-nonsense memoir. Born into a household suffering from Depression-era poverty and raised by an alcoholic father, Bunker didn’t start out life on the right foot. First imprisoned at just 17-years old in San Quentin, Bunker ran with a rough crowd and served two long jail sentences. Less about the prison system itself and more about the environments that create criminals, Education of a Felon gives readers a good look into the dangers of 1960’s California prisons and what happens when people aren’t given opportunities. Though Eddie Bunker’s life ultimately turned out well, countless others never get the chance.
Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog (1993) by Dannie M. Martin and Peter Y. Sussman
While serving time for a bank robbery, Dannie Martin (nicknamed ‘Red Hog’) began writing essays about his prison experiences and sending them to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Sussman. Committing Journalism consists of fifty of these essays, which cover everything from guard brutality, poor health care, racism, and other injustices. As Martin’s writings became popular, the Bureau of Prisons tried to stop him. Along with the essays, the book describes the relationship between Martin and Sussman as they stand against censoring the truth about the US prison system. The book gets its title from something Martin wrote: “I commited bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong.”
American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment (2018) by Shane Bauer
For-profit prisons represent 8.5% of the country’s state and federal prison population. Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, went undercover as a guard to learn what these places were like. Equipped with a tape recorder and hidden camera, Bauer easily got a job in 2014 at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. There, he saw how inmates had no vocational programs, no hobby shops, and limited access to the library. One assistant warden described inmates as a herd of cattle. In addition to Bauer’s experiences, this brand-new book recounts the history of private prisons in America.