In case you haven’t checked the stats recently,
approximately one in 110 adults are currently incarcerated in the United States.
(And by the way: Where is that critical conversation being had in the 2016
election debates?) For those with such limited access to the outside world,
prison libraries can be essential in supporting the educational, social, and spiritual
rehabilitative experience of a prisoner — in addition to just being plain
In a previous article, suggesting a list of titles to donate
to prison libraries, I wrote that my personal experience with the American
prison system includes volunteering in detention facilities, previously working
full-time as a Jane-of-all-trades of sorts in a reentry and gang-intervention
program, visiting and interviewing inmates in prisons in the United States and
around the world, and including among my graduate studies work focused on gang
violence, incarceration, and ex-offender reentry in the United States. And
while there are those who are skeptical about the power of literature and
literacy to transform a prisoner’s experience of incarceration, I remain a
full-fledged believer in the importance of having access to books in prison, and
their ability to afford prisoners increased opportunity for success upon
reentry into mainstream society.
While in no way a comprehensive list — many prisons have different Here are nine of the most read books in American prisons. If
you’re interested in donating a few to your state or county prison (go you!) be
sure to check out this list of things you didn’t know about books in prisons
1. A Life Inside: A
Prisoner's Notebook by Erwin James
As a young man, Erwin James was sentenced to a life in
prison. James effectively grew up behind bars — transitioning from youth into
middle age while incarcerated. His prison memoir, A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook
, as well as lots of other
prison memoirs, like Porridge and Passion
by Jonathan Aitken and The Pain of
by Jimmy Boyle, are naturally popular titles among inmates
looking to give voice to their own experiences of incarceration.
2. GED Test Prep Books
The vast majority of those incarcerated in the United States
received inadequate or incomplete educational opportunities in their lives
before prison, and while behind bars many inmates work towards completing high
school and/or passing the GED test. One of the most critical indicators of an
inmate’s likelihood of success upon reentry into society is their ability to
achieve an education while in prison.
3. Legal Dictionaries
For many inmates, there is an overwhelming sense of
powerlessness when it comes to dealing with their lawyers and the court system,
due to a basic lack of education about the American legal system. Legal
help alleviate that sense of powerlessness by helping inmates to
better understand what is being discussed during their court cases. Legal
dictionaries in translation are also especially useful.
4. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
While banned in many prisons across the United States for
less-than-helpful content about how to get what you want through seduction or
conning, this book explores the philosophies and historical influences of Machiavelli,
Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz. The small merit Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power
has is that it does
advocate for intelligence, ambition, empowerment, and drive in achieving your goals — you just
have to focus that drive towards positive endeavors.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
All readers appreciate the feeling of recognizing themselves
and their own experiences between the covers of a book — it’s basically the
next best thing to having a good friend by your side. Naturally, Sylvia Plath’s
intensely psychological and emotional writing, particularly in her novel The Bell Jar
, appeals to anyone battling
their own intense thoughts and feelings, as many inmates are.
6. The Diary of a
Young Girl by Anne Frank
Experiencing a uniquely devastating form of imprisonment, first
while hiding from the Nazi’s during World War II in the annex of an office
building, and later in Nazi concentration camps, The Diary of a Young Girl
— Anne Frank’s personal account of
courage, resilience, and hope in the face of grave adversity — definitely
speaks to those incarcerated in the United States.
7. The Faithless by Martina Cole
, and just about any other titles by
bestselling British crime fiction writer Martina Cole are popular in prison
libraries for a reason. Cole’s fiction is uniquely situated in the genre of
crime fiction in that her novels feature mostly female antiheroes and explore
crime dramas through the experience of the criminal. As part of her own writing
life, Cole facilitates creative writing classes in U.K. prisons, so naturally she
understands her audience well.
8. Merry Christmas, Alex Cross by James Patterson
Thriller-writer extraordinaire, James Patterson, is often a favorite among inmates for his tales of forensic detective and psychologist Alex Cross, of the Alex Cross series. Throughout the series, protagonist Cross is called to solve mysteries, rescue hostages, and catch criminals — all while trying to keep his own family safe and well. Merry Christmas, Alex Cross
contains all of the above, and more.
9. Step-By-Step Exercise Guides
Anyone who has ever seen, or stepped inside, a prison cell before knows that there's not a whole lot of room to do anything
, much less get in a good jog. So for obvious reasons, step-by-step guides for exercises
that can be accomplished in small spaces — like ab and arm workouts, and yoga — are some of the more coveted titles within a prison library.
Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr