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
A Prison Diary by Jeffrey Archer
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower by William Blum
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
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.