The United States has long been home to the world’s most voracious prison system. Though the country hosts only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for over 20% of the world’s prisoners — broken down, that means an average of one in 110 American adults are currently in prison. With such high statistics, it’s surprising that Americans seem to fall into one of two categories: those who understand the U.S. penal system through the important, though understandably limited views of Orange is the New Black and episodes of last year’s most talked-about podcast, Serial ; and those who have intimate knowledge of incarceration, either through firsthand experience or that of close family member.
I fall somewhere in the middle. Since college I've volunteered in detention facilities, my first job after completing school was with a reentry and gang-intervention program, I’ve visited and interviewed inmates in prisons in the United States and around the world, and part of my graduate work focused on gang violence, incarceration, and ex-offender reentry in the United States. I certainly don’t pretend to know everything about the U.S. prison system — and I’ve never endured the fraught experience of having a close family member incarcerated — but I do have enough firsthand knowledge to understand that books are essential to a prisoner’s experience in jail, and the decisions they make and opportunities they have upon reentry into mainstream society.
For an inmate, books extend far beyond serving as entertainment. Inmates require books to earn their high school diplomas or to study for their GEDs. They use books to educate themselves on the penal system, U.S. law, and to prepare for upcoming court cases. They read to learn about their racial and ethnic heritage, and the history of their neighborhoods and cities; to learn about others who have shared their experience of incarceration and succeeded on the other side; and to explore the world outside prison and the neighborhoods from which they came. Some inmates even learn to read for the first time in the lives while incarcerated. Essentially, inmates use literature in the same way everyone uses literature — to learn about themselves and the world, to experience the empathy of a well-told story, and to improve their lives.
Here are 11 of the most requested books in American prisons. Consider donating a few to an inmate this holiday season (try some of these prison book programs) — it will definitely make a positive difference in an inmate’s life.
Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall writes about his experience as a black man living in urban America in his memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler . From growing up in a gang-active neighborhood where he engaged in shootings, robberies, and other violence, to his adult life as a successful journalist, McCall writes about his fight to pull away from the streets of his youth.
A Prison Diary by Jeffrey Archer
In 2001 Jeffrey Archer was sentenced to four years in a U.K. prison. His series of memoirs, A Prison Diary , focuses on his time spent in various prisons throughout Britain, and his later life on parole. Told with honesty, humor, and great hope, Archer's memoirs show readers the possibility of a productive life after time spent behind bars.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön's practical guide for healing and spirituality, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times , teaches readers how to use the painful emotions and memories from their past to inform positive decision-making in the future, how to deal with chaos and struggle, and how to put an end unhealthy habits and choices.
Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower by William Blum
William Blum's Rogue State sheds light on the international policies and practices of the United States, and presents a survey of the foreign conflicts, wars, and other myriad entanglements the U.S. has engaged in since World War II. Blum's is definitely not the history you learned in high school.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Written by the 13-year-old Anne Frank during the last years of her life spent hiding from the Nazis, confined within the hidden annex of an old office building before being discovered by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp, and later Bergen-Belsen where she died, The Diary of Anne Frank contains the candid, heartfelt, and hopeful yearnings of a young girl who died tragically and far too soon.
This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War by James M. McPherson
This Mighty Scourge is a collection of essays by Civil War scholar and Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson. The collection covers everything from the inspirational story of Harriet Tubman to the McPherson's theories on why peace negotiations failed to end the Civil War sooner.
The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta
Known as a Chicano "Robin Hood" figure and a defense lawyer for the Chicanos living in East Los Angeles in the 1960s, Oscar Zeta Acosta's memoir, The Revolt of the Cockroach People , is both an illuminating memoir and a story that bares witness to the experience of Chicano-Americans during the Vietnam years.
In the bestselling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, author Dee Brown tells the true story of America's westward expansion, through the systemic destruction and manipulation of Native American chiefs and their tribes.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life by Marshall Frady
Marshall Frady spent much of his journalism career documenting the events of the Civil Rights Movement. In his biography Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life , Frady takes a closer look at the movement's greatest leader, his successes and failures, his relationship with other leaders of the Civil Rights era, and the legacy he left behind for American leaders today.
Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy by George G. M. James
First published in 1954, Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy argues against the long-taught theory that human civilization started in ancient Greece, defending its origins as coming instead from Africa. George G. M. James demonstrates how some of the greatest Greek scholars like Herodotus, Hippocrates, Aristotle, were actually influenced by long-held Egyptian philosophy and teachings.
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby
A grassroots organizer for the Civil Rights Movement, a nonviolent activist, and a key leader of the NAACP, Ella Baker is credited with being one of the most influential and significant leaders of the African American community of the 20th century. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision tells the story of Baker's work, and shares her nonviolent, justice-driven teachings with a new generation of activists.