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The ten best books about America's prisons

This week's cover story, "The Lifers Book Club," reports on the Words Beyond Bars Project, a pilot progam at the Limon Correctional Facility that puts high-security prisoners, many of them serving life sentences, in a room with volunteers to discuss great books. It's a modest effort that could transform lives -- and certainly provides an interpretation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men you won't get in your typical high school English class. One of the greatest challenges, WBB developer Karen Lausa found out, is picking the right books.

The Limon group has tackled some books that deal directly with prison experiences, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Yet they've also explored worlds well beyond their immediate frame of reference, such as Tim O'Brien's stunning Vietnam novel The Things They Carried. But what about folks on the outside, curious about the realities of life on the inside? What should they read?

That's a tough question, for several reasons. Prison literature is a vast, amorphous and largely neglected field. Many great writers, from Cervantes, Dostoyevsky and Thoreau to Wilde and Genet, were shaped to some extent by time spent in one kind of slammer or another, but they're not truly "prison writers." And there's a numbing sameness to a lot of prison memoirs by criminals turned raconteurs, as can be seen in even the best anthology of that genre, H. Bruce Franklin's Prison Writing in 20th-Century America.

Still, there are dozens of nonfiction books about prison life in these United States that tend to stay with you, like a recurrent nightmare. Some are by journalists with an unusual degree of access to that hidden world. Some are by prisoners who have become witnesses to history or spelunkers in a spiritual darkness. Here are the best ones I've found.

10. You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, Jimmy A. Lerner (2003). A corporate planner on a crazy tear that ended up in a manslaughter beef, Lerner is the ultimate newby in a tough Nevada prison, sharing a cell with a musclebound skinhead. His account of navigating the corruption, racial violence and mind-addling boredom of contemporary prison life is oddly comical and inspiring at the same time, with a strong ear and eye for the gritty details.

9. Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver (1968). A bit heavy on ideology to be any fun, Cleaver's polemical essays from Folsom Prison remain an essential artifact of its time -- and a great example of how the black militancy movement of the 1960s filtered out of the prisons and back in. An admitted rapist turned revolutionary, Cleaver writes passionately about everything from prison life to male sexuality and his greatest mentor, Malcolm X.

8. A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago Baca (2002). Poet Baca's account of how he went to prison as an illiterate drug dealer, then found the key to his liberation in language, was an obvious choice for Lausa's book group. It has a lot to offer civilians, too, in its passion for the saving graces of reading and writing.

Continue to keep counting down our list of the ten best books about America's prisons.

7. Among the Lowest of the Dead, David Von Drehle (1994). Washington Post staffer Von Drehle's epic account about a series of executions on Florida's busy death row is richly detailed, exquisitely written -- and ghastly. He seems to be everywhere at once: peeling back the mythologies of Ted Bundy, watching John Spenkelink smolder in the electric chair, catching the back-room maneuvers of attorneys trying to save their clients' sorry necks, and providing us all with a vivid portrait of America's long-stalled capital punishment machinery returning with a vengeance.

6. Life After Death, Damien Echols (2012). The purported ringleader of the West Memphis Three, Echols spent eighteen years on death row in Arkansas for a terrible triple murder before DNA evidence and public pressure freed the trio. His memoir scarcely touches on the case, but offers a fascinating account of how he kept his spirit alive in solitary confinement, with the aid of pen pal (now wife) Lorri Davis and what Echols calls "magick."

5. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Ted Conover (2000). Conover, a Manual High grad, went undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing to obtain an unmediated view of America's booming corrections industry. His fresh reporting transcends the lurid cliches found in most journalists' efforts to get at the subject, and his eye-opening journey provides ample proof of how the system dehumanizes the keepers as well as the caged.

4. The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, Pete Earley (1992). Investigative journalist Pete Earley got unprecedented access to Leavenworth during a time when it housed some of the most pathological convicts in the entire federal system. It's a mistake the U.S. Bureau of Prisons won't make again. His riveting account of how a maximum security federal lockup really works introduced readers to several memorable characters, including Thomas "Terrible Tommy" Silverstein, the most isolated prisoner in the BOP.

Continue to keep counting down our list of the ten best books about America's prisons.

3. In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, Jack Henry Abbott (1981). Norman Mailer was so taken with the rambling letters sent to him by an obscure hardcore felon that he helped get the writings published and the man released. Abbott promptly killed again, a senseless murder that sent him back to prison, where he eventually hanged himself. Yet Abbott's searing indictment of the system that raised him -- and, in his view, permanently maims prisoners and made him the monster he proved to be -- still packs a wallop.

2. Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog, Dannie M. Martin and Peter Y. Sussman (1993). Doing federal time for bank robbery, Martin teamed with San Francisco Chronicle editor Sussman to produce a series of columns that, despite prison officials' attempts to muzzle them, presented a powerful inside look at the American prison-industrial complex in the 1980s and the resulting "gulag mentality," with thousands of inmates snared by the drug war and other doomed campaigns.

1. Education of a Felon: A Memoir, Edward Bunker (2000). Bunker is best known to film buffs as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs; he also received a writing credit for the cult classic Runaway Train, in which he cameos. But he was also a serious crime novelist, writing from deep and bitter experience, and this straightforward account of his rise from juvenile delinquent to habitue of the California penal system manages to be jaw-dropping but never sensationalized. No cant, no self-pitying justification here, just a seasoned criminal coming to terms with himself through writing and reflection, and learning how to break a pattern of self-destruction stretching back to childhood.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber."


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