New York magazine has this great new piece headlined “The Best Books on the American Prison System, According to Experts.” For many reasons, I would be inclined to call this list a “great books” list rather than a “best books” list; there are many awesome texts in this genre not making the list. For example, I adore The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, though perhaps it did not make the list because it is an edited collection. And The Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal: Penal Policy and Social Purpose by Frances Allen was extremely important when authored three decades ago and is arguably even more timely now amidst our persistent and ever-evolving era of mass incarceration. I am showing my age by flagging these older books, but there are also many more recent texts about that I also think of as “modern classics” in this arena.
These quibbles aside, I am pleased to see New York magazine highlighting more than a dozen terrific books in this article. Here is some of the text previewing the list that follows:
Along with calling for an end to police brutality, recent protests following the murder of George Floyd have brought attention to another national crisis that disproportionately affects people of color: mass incarceration. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 2.3 million people (or 20 percent of the world’s prison population) are incarcerated in the United States, and while Black people make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of prisoners are Black. Millions more are on probation or parole, facing restrictions on housing, employment, and, in many states, the right to vote.
Like police violence against people of color, this isn’t a new issue. Activists and scholars like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been arguing for the abolition of prisons for decades. But if you want to further educate yourself, we asked 11 scholars, lawyers, and activists what books they recommend for those seeking a deeper understanding.
Since mass incarceration is entangled with issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics, we sought out experts with diverse perspectives on the topic who could recommend books addressing the prison system from all angles. Our panel includes Jeffrey Adler, professor and author of Murder in New Orleans: The Creation of Jim Crow Policing; Paul Butler, law professor and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men; Robert Chase, professor and author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America; David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project; author and professor Shaun L. Gabbidon, Kali Nicole Gross, professor and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States; Sarah Haley, professor and author of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity; Elizabeth Hinton, professor and author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America; Jen Manion, professor and author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America; law professor Jocelyn Simonson; and Caleb Smith, professor and author of The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War.
As in all our reading lists, the 14 books below come recommended by at least two of our experts. These titles cover the origins of our prison system, those who have been affected by incarceration, and the growing resistance movement. While we’ve separated the books into categories, it’s important to keep in mind that there are intersections and overlaps between topics. For example, a book about the history of prison in America is inevitably a book about race, while a book about race and prison will include discussions of resistance movements.