Required Reading: The Top 10 Jailbird Books


People end up in prison for a variety of reasons; some for political crimes, others for robbery, murder, or rape, and even more for drug-related offenses. Then there are those who find themselves working at prisons, and they’ve been able to tell different, but no less compelling, tales. Whatever the reason, the following list of ten authors have written thought-provoking, disturbing, and even hilarious books about the prison system in the US and abroad.

1. Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Kerman is a Smith alumna who served a year in prison in Danbury, Connecticut for a drug trafficking offense ten years after the fact. She writes, “One day in the spring Nora returned home with a brand-new white Miata convertible and a suitcase full of money. She dumped the cash on the bed and rolled around in it, naked and giggling. It was her biggest payout yet. Soon I was zipping around in that Miata, with Lenny Kravitz on the tape deck demanding to know, ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?'”

Attention New Yorkers: Kerman reads from her memoir tonight at Book Court in Brooklyn at 7pm.

2. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover

Conover, a professor of journalism at NYU, decided to become a corrections officer in order to “hear the voices one truly never hears, the voices of guards — those on the front lines of our prison policies, the society’s proxies.”

3. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

“If you’re a pimp, you’ve got love for the library,” writes Steinberg. He continues, “In the joint, where business is slow, the library is The Spot. It’s where you go to see and be seen.” Who knew that libraries were the place to be? The last time I was in one I sat next to two bickering high school students and a homeless guy in need of a shower. It was not a sexy time.

4. You Got Nothing Coming by Jimmy Lerner

This is a memoir of Lerner’s first year (of a possible 12) as an inmate in a Nevada state prison; it’s a shocking, hilarious, and heartbreaking narrative.

5. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

This seminal work examines the prison system not only in France, but those throughout the Western world; he questions the motivations behind our willingness to banish inmates to cells, and posits the idea that prisons, along with schools, hospitals, and factories, are all part of the panoptic society in which we live.

6. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

Cleaver writes, “I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation.” He is not a sympathetic man, but then again, he’s not asking you for sympathy.

7. Memoirs from the Women’s Prison by Nawal el Saadawi

El Saadawi was one of many intellectuals who ended up in the Egyptian prison system in the early ’80s. In the two months she spent in jail, she wrote notes to herself with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper.

8. Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison by T.J. Parsell

This coming-of-age prison memoir begins with Parsell holding up a photo mat with a toy gun at the tender age of seventeen. In jail, he was drugged and gang-raped, eventually becoming the property of a fellow inmate. Now he’s an outspoken advocate for prisoner’s rights.

9. Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos

In the late 1980s, Santos was arrested for trafficking cocaine and sentenced to 45 years in prison. While there, he was able to complete both a B.A. and M.A., and is now awaiting parole in two years.

10. Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor by Young Kim

Kim was accused of treason when it was discovered he was the orphaned son of a spy. He was wrenched from his post as a lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army and deposited into one of the most infamous labor camps in the country. He managed to escape in 1999, and met Suk-Young Kim, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, who translated his story for an English-speaking audience.