Book Reviews, Featured Story

The Books That Saved Me Behind Bars

When I was first incarcerated as a young, first-time, non-violent offender with a sentence of over two decades, I had no idea what to expect. I was lost, confused, and scared. But one day, I stumbled upon a book written by an incarcerated author, and it changed my life. Suddenly, I had access to knowledge that I could only learn from someone who had experienced prison life firsthand.

I devoured books by incarcerated authors, eager to learn from those who had come before me, to hear their stories and understand the world of prison. These books became my guide, helping me to understand the realities of life behind bars and to navigate the complicated social hierarchy that exists within prison walls. These works opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life behind bars, and taught me how to navigate the complex social structures and unwritten rules of the prison system.

But they did more than that. They gave me hope. They showed me that even in the darkest of places, there is light to be found. They reminded me that I was not alone in my struggles, that others had faced similar challenges and come out on the other side.

  1. “Soledad Brother” by George Jackson – This book is a collection of Jackson’s letters from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for a robbery conviction. In these letters, Jackson discusses the racism and exploitation that he and other prisoners faced, and he offers a vision for how to build a revolutionary movement both inside and outside of prison.

2. “In The Belly of the Beast” by Jack Henry Abbott – Abbott’s book is a powerful account of his life in and out of prison. He describes the brutalities he experienced while incarcerated, as well as the profound intellectual and spiritual transformations that he underwent during his time behind bars.

3. “Live From Death Row” by Mumia Abu-Jamal – Abu-Jamal’s book is a moving memoir about his experience on death row, where he has spent over 30 years fighting for his freedom. In it, he reflects on the politics of the criminal justice system, the brutality of prison life, and the ways in which he has managed to stay hopeful in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

4. “Birdman of Alcatraz” by Thomas E. Gaddis – This book is a biography of Robert Stroud, a convicted murderer who spent much of his life in solitary confinement at the infamous Alcatraz prison. Despite his circumstances, Stroud became an accomplished ornithologist and wrote several books on the subject while in prison.

5. “Writing My Wrongs” by Shaka Senghor – Senghor’s memoir is a deeply personal account of his journey through the criminal justice system, from his troubled childhood to his time in prison and eventual release. In it, he describes the ways in which he was able to transform himself through writing and self-reflection, and he offers a message of hope for others who may be struggling with similar challenges.

So if you find yourself facing time in prison, or if you know someone who is, I urge you to get these books. They are not just tales of incarceration, but stories of resilience, of courage, and of the human spirit’s unbreakable will to survive.

In the end, these books saved me. They helped me make sense of the chaos around me, and gave me the strength to carry on. They showed me that even in the darkest of places, there is hope, and that with determination, anything is possible.

1 Comment

  • Roll Steven says:

    Great article Seth !
    James Clavelles “King Rat ” was The first book I read in CYA. It put doing time in perspective. George Jackson Eddie Bunker came after.

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