Nonfiction Books About Prison Life?
April 30, 2012 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Nonfiction books about the prison experience?

I'm looking for good nonfiction books and/or articles about life in prison. I'm primarily interested in the US. I'd love any recommendations for books, for example, by prisoners or guards. It can be any format -- journalism, memoirs, portraits, academic studies, etc. -- as long as it's about the prison experience itself.

posted by EtTuHealy to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of possibly left-field suggestions, both of which deal with the mental life of captives, and how prisoners cope with the psychological demands of long-term captivity: Megan Sweeney's Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women's Prisons (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) [Publisher's page]; and Amia Lieblich's Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs (NYU Press, 1994) [Google Books preview].
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:51 AM on April 30, 2012

"Orange is the New Black" Piper Kerman.
Not the most exciting but a true acccount. Just finished it last night.

Exit to Freedom

(Sorry no links, on phone)
posted by KogeLiz at 4:07 AM on April 30, 2012

Newjack is by a guy who worked as a prison guard at Sing Sing. I liked it.
posted by qldaddy at 4:08 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, from the point of view of a guard (author who took the civil service exam and was a guard at Sing Sing for one year): Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.
posted by kuanes at 4:09 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of my favourite books in this genre are about escapes from prison, so with that in mind...

Papillon by Henri Charrière. The sheer number of places he's incarcerated and subsequently busts out of provide plenty of different versions of the prison experience as do his thumbnail sketches of all his fellow prisoners in the various places. Not based in the US, but a total classic of the genre and way more involved than the movie adaptation.

Midnight Express by Billy Hayes. American citizen escaping from a Turkish prison.

Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale. Along with all the con-artist stuff there are sections describing and comparing his experiences in prison in different European countries.

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. (If you're including POW camps, that is.) The original memoir was changed a lot to make the movie.

And some non-escape reading would be The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann, which is a collection of his writings for various The New Yorker and includes a piece on the Aryan Brotherhood that looks at how gangs form and proliferate within the US prison system. US! I obviously need to expand my reading.
posted by the latin mouse at 4:19 AM on April 30, 2012

Fish by T.J. Parsell is a brutal account of his time in prison.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:19 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Erwin James (an assumed name) wrote a column for the Guardian for years about his experiences on a life sentence - they've now been collected as a book. This is a British prison, though. (I don't think he ever said which one.)
posted by mippy at 4:29 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

He now writes about prison issues now and then for hte paper.
posted by mippy at 4:30 AM on April 30, 2012

Life Sentences is an anthology of articles from the Angola prison newspaper. They are more like long-form magazine articles than newspaper articles: a long article on the history of the prison, a chilling article on rape in prisons, a piece about the plight of elderly prisoners, and so on.
posted by thelonius at 4:34 AM on April 30, 2012

Games Prisoners Play, by Marek M. Kaminski: a fascinating look at game theory applied to Polish prison life during the Cold War.

The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp
, by R.A. Radford: a brilliant essay on how WW2 POWs occupied themselves.

Live From Death Row, by Mumia Abu-Jamal: your enjoyment will likely depend on your politics.
posted by kithrater at 4:38 AM on April 30, 2012

Accomplices to the Crime is the book that Brubaker was based on and is a very interesting read regarding the prison reform movement in the 1960s. It is more about prison administration and effectiveness, but was quite interesting.
posted by chiefthe at 4:49 AM on April 30, 2012

This may not fit your theme, but the only one that I've read is "Escape" by Dwight and Barbara Worker. The Escape occurs from Mexico City's Lecumberri prison in the early 70s. Until that point, onyl Pancho Villa had escaped. The captive, Dwight, meets Barbara through a mutual friend who comes to visit, they fall in love and plot the escape.

It's more experiential than scholarly, but there was some research as well.

It was out of print for a while, but a new edition is being rereleased on Amazon this week.

There was also the movie adaptation with Timothy Bottoms.
posted by SpicyMustard at 4:59 AM on April 30, 2012

Jeffrey Archer - A Prison Diary. Three books about his time in a U.K prison.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:15 AM on April 30, 2012

Hard Times, by Shaun Attwood (Amazon). From the blurb:
Using a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, "Jon's Jail Journal", excerpts of which were published in "The Guardian" and attracted international media attention. Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble. But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organisation that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "Hard Time" is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.
Fascinating blog, now an absorbing read of someone going through the whole system.
posted by ewan at 5:39 AM on April 30, 2012

Think part of my previous comment got eaten. Second to last sentence should have been "Apologies that this is my only example from the US"
posted by the latin mouse at 5:46 AM on April 30, 2012

Jean Genet, not in the US. In the US: Malcolm X; T.J. Parsell; American Women in Prison.
posted by mareli at 5:54 AM on April 30, 2012

It's not the US (Australia) but Lindy Chamberlain wrote a book about her experiences in prison and with the legal system called Through My Eyes which I found a very engaging read. She writes about continuing her education in prison, about the politics of prison social life, about having a baby while a prisoner.
posted by lwb at 6:08 AM on April 30, 2012

The True Notebooks by Mark Salzman is a great read.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:49 AM on April 30, 2012

You Are Going to Prison by Jim Hogshire. "Providing down-to-earth advice for and hints on attitude at all steps of the road from arrest to death row, he proffers the chance of survival in an environment usually wrapped in rumors and fear."
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:58 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Parts of Howard Marks' autobiography Mr Nice describe his various prison experiences.
posted by elizardbits at 8:12 AM on April 30, 2012

Not a book, but rather a magazine, The Sun, often has writing from incarcerated persons in the "Reader's Write" section.
posted by allelopath at 8:41 AM on April 30, 2012

Brothers in Pen: Six Cubic Feet written by inmates at San Quentin. It just came out last year.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:51 AM on April 30, 2012

Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row by David von Drehle
posted by silence down below at 9:58 AM on April 30, 2012

Also, San Quentin (a Calif State Pen) has a newspaper that's inmate written and published. It's for other inmates but it still might be interesting to check out.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:13 AM on April 30, 2012

Inside Out: Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey's Trenton State Prison is written by a former guard at New Jersey State Prison. He writes about his experience, some of the notable inmates he dealt with, being taken hostage (twice!), and witnessing executions.

(Full disclosure: I worked with the author one summer at GSYCF, and my father worked with him for several years.)
posted by Godbert at 12:01 PM on April 30, 2012

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment. An excellent book.
posted by fingerbang at 2:08 PM on April 30, 2012

The London Hanged UK centric and deals with the gallows and transportation as well as the gaols. I really enjoyed it!
posted by fingerbang at 2:25 PM on April 30, 2012

Bad by James Carr

Games Criminals Play by Bud Allen - not the same book as the earlier mention

The Road to Hell by Paul Liberatore

You Can't Win by Jack Black - not just prison, but a good chunk of it is about the author's experience in early 20th century prisons.

On the Yard by Malcolm Braly is the best prison novel I've read. He also wrote a memoir, 'False Starts' which I have not read but is reportedly pretty good.
posted by BigSky at 3:56 PM on April 30, 2012

I liked the prioson section in exile nation
posted by lalochezia at 5:10 PM on April 30, 2012

Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution was the first thing that came to mind.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:53 PM on April 30, 2012

For a historical perspective, how about Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (free ebook) by Alexander Berkman?
posted by iivix at 1:45 AM on May 2, 2012

Shaking It Rough by Andreas Schroeder is a thoughtful, observant prison memoir set in British Columbia in the mid-1970s. It was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award in 1977.

I'm surprised Angela Davis hasn't been mentioned in this thread, but I don't know her writing well enough to make a specific recommendation.
posted by twirlip at 5:59 PM on May 2, 2012

Soledad Brother by George Jackson is a classic, with a lot of political analysis.

I second Fish, listed above.

The Angela Davis to start with is her autobiography.

15 to Life, with the caveat that I know the author.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:20 AM on May 4, 2012

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