Share Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

Erin Flaaen is a corporate marketing assistant at Simon and Schuster. Despite her innocent appearance, she loves dark stories, having been strongly influenced by Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner as a teenager. Originally from Arizona, she moved to New York in 2014 and now spends her days being constantly confused by the weather, craving Mexican food, and reading books on trains.

In the fall of 2011, I was given the profound opportunity to participate in an internship reading and critiquing the writing of inmates. This experience deeply affected me, leading to my continued dedication to prison education and belief in the power of books and writing to change lives. Below are some of my favorite pieces of prison lit, some written by inmates themselves, some by teachers who have been brave enough to cross the thresholds of America’s prisons. They serve as a stark reminder of the realities of prison life, giving a voice to an often otherwise-forgotten population.


The Graybar Hotel
by Curtis Dawkins

The inspiration for this list, THE GRAYBAR HOTEL is my favorite new addition to prison lit. From Curtis Dawkins, an MFA graduate and convicted murderer, comes a collection of short stories that takes readers inside the American prison system. Dawkins’s characters give voice to those who are often dehumanized within our criminal justice system, sharing their hopes, memories, doubts, and desires.

The Graybar Hotel
Curtis Dawkins

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Crossing the Yard
by Richard Shelton

An English professor at the University of Arizona, Richard Shelton teaches creative writing workshops in prisons across the state. This memoir tells his struggle to get into the prisons, the lives he’s seen changed through writing, and the gritty underbelly of the American prison system.

Crossing the Yard
Richard Shelton

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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A Place to Stand
by Jimmy Santiago Baca

If you have not read poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca before, click here and start now. Don’t worry. I’ll wait... Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with, in my opinion, one of the best poets of our time, you may be surprised that, at 21, Baca entered a maximum security prison illiterate and facing five to ten years for drug-related charges. A PLACE TO STAND is Baca’s memoir, covering his life up until his conviction and how words changed him as he served his time.

A Place to Stand
Jimmy Santiago Baca

In my strong opinion, Jimmy Santiago Baca is one of the best poets of our time—but what makes his poetry all the more engaging is the powerful story behind it. At age 21, Baca was illiterate and facing five to ten years behind bars for selling drugs. A PLACE TO STAND is his humbling and beautiful memoir that includes his time in a maximum-security prison, where he discovered literature and a love for poetry that would lead to his success following the end of his sentence. —Erin

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Just Mercy
by Bryan Stevenson

This one’s at the top of my to-read list. More than just a story of American prisons, this memoir encompasses our entire legal system. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the country’s most vulnerable. JUST MERCY is both his story coming-of-age as a lawyer and those of his clients, ultimately showing the need for mercy while pursuing justice.

Read the full review of JUST MERCY.

Just Mercy
Bryan Stevenson

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and an unwavering call to fix our broken justice system, from the influential lawyer behind the Equal Justice Initiative.

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Becoming Ms. Burton
by Susan Burton

While women only make up 6.7 percent of the inmate population in the United States, they also face very unique challenges while incarcerated. Due to her drug addiction, Susan Burton was cycled in and out of prison for 15 years. Once clean, she began working to support women facing similar struggles. BECOMING MS. BURTON follows her journey and humanizes the impact of mass incarceration.

Becoming Ms. Burton
Susan Burton

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Couldn't Keep It to Myself
by Wally Lamb

Being a fan of Wally Lamb’s fiction, I couldn’t resist this collection. Many may not know about Lamb’s time spent teaching writing to a group of female inmates in Connecticut. In COULDN’T KEEP IT TO MYSELF, the women describe their imprisonment by abuse, rejection, and their own self-destructive behavior before they entered the criminal justice system. Ultimately, these are stories of hope and healing, showing the power writing and expression had on these women’s lives.

Couldn't Keep It to Myself
Wally Lamb

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela

While many have read Nelson Mandela’s bestselling autobiography, LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, or seen the 2013 movie based on it, some of the best insight into Mandela and his 27 years of imprisonment can be found in the letters, notes, and even doodles compiled in this collection. While this book, obviously, does not examine prison life in America, it does provide strong insight into the affects of imprisonment and isolation.

Conversations with Myself
Nelson Mandela

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Fourth City
by Doran Larson

The title for this essay collection stems from the number of incarcerated Americans, roughly 2.26 million, which outnumbers the population of the fourth largest city in the country. This collection makes a moving and eloquent statement about the criminal justice system through more than 70 essays from inmates in 27 states.

Fourth City
Doran Larson

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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On the Yard
by Malcolm Braly

Possibly the first piece of modern prison lit, ON THE YARD was written by Malcolm Braly while he served time at San Quentin in the 1960s. The novel follows two inmates, Chilly Willy, the head of the prison’s flourishing black market in drugs and sex, and Paul, who is seeking redemption after murdering his wife. While this is a fictionalized account, Braly uses his own experiences to paint a complex picture of the penitentiary.

On the Yard
Malcolm Braly

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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By Heart
by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson

Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson met while Judith was teaching a poetry workshop at San Quentin State Prison in 1985 and Spoon was serving a life sentence for murder. Over the next 20 years, they would continue their correspondence, culminating in this dual memoir about art, education, prison, possibility, and how their extremely different lives led them both to poetry.

By Heart
Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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A Question of Freedom
by Dwayne Betts

At 16, Dwayne Betts was arrested after a carjacking. He was convicted and given a nine-year sentence to be carried out as part of the adult population. A QUESTION OF FREEDOM is a memoir of the moments that led to his crime and how the books he discovered while in prison shaped his identity while coming-of-age in an otherwise hostile environment.

A Question of Freedom
Dwayne Betts

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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Live from Death Row
by Mumia Abu-Jamal

When this collection was published, Mumia Abu-Jamal was in a Pennsylvania prison awaiting his state-sanctioned execution after what many called an extremely biased trial. His sentence has since been commuted to life without parole, but his writings still serve as a unique, harrowing look at racism and political bias in the American judicial system, along with the brutalities of prison life.

Live from Death Row
Mumia Abu-Jamal

MENTIONED IN:

Books Behind Bars: 12 Outstanding Works of Prison Lit

By Erin Flaaen | July 6, 2017

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