Recent Books on Justice and Incarceration Featured Image

In Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State, Lyle C. May explains how information about the specifics of capital punishment is kept from public knowledge, and how this shapes perceptions about justice and the system by which justice is practiced. With there now being more avenues and opportunities for journalists and writers in prisons to share their stories and provide critical interrogations of incarceration, people who have never visited a carceral facility are able to gain an awareness of the conditions by which people live, love, and work behind and across prison walls.

Like Witness, most of the books on this list provide nuanced insights and perspectives about the impact of incarceration. Because publishing through the walls is a challenging—and sometimes delicate—process that relies on patching together networks and resources, some of these writers and editors below utilized invention and innovation to keep their voices within certain critical discourses about their work. For example, the group of writers who edited American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion while serving sentences in Minnesota included a transcript of a roundtable-styled conversation following each essay. Similarly in American Inmate, Justin Rovillos Monson uses  the musical device of “sampling” in studio recordings to bring his work into conversation with hip hop and other poetics.  An interview of Monson discussing an early version of his book can be found here.

Three of the edited volumes chronicle the lived experiences of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Josh Davidson and Eric King’s Rattling the Cages: Oral Histories of North American Political Prisoners and Anthologic Publication’s Texas Letters, Vol. 2 show the impact of carceral surveillance through first-person interviews and letters, while Doran Larson uses material from the American Prison Writing Archive for his monograph, Inside Knowledge: Incarcerated People on the Failures of the American Prison, to offer a critical analysis of carceral systems. Another edited volume by Moira Marquis and Dave “Mac” Marquis touches on prison book programs and resource sharing through the walls.

Rap and Redemption on Death Row, America Precariat, and Rattling the Cages book covers

Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose behind Bars
The University of North Carolina Press, April 2024
Alim Braxton and Mark Katz
Alim Braxton has spent more than a quarter century on North Carolina’s death row. A rapper since the age of thirteen, Braxton uses his lyrics as a form of therapy and to advocate for prison reform and the wrongfully incarcerated. This book is a hip hop prison memoir, chronicling his attempt to record an album while on death row.

American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion
Coffee House Press, November 2023
Zeke Caligiuri et al.
This anthology of essays was edited by a collective of incarcerated writers involved in the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. The volume interrogates the complexity and fluidity of class and caste systems in the United States, and includes transcribed conversations of the editors. For season three of PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast, two of the anthology’s editors—C. Fausto Cabrera and Zeke Caligiuri—talk about how they developed a friendship rooted in writing while incarcerated, what they did to bring writing programs into Minnesota prisons, and the history of how the volume came to be. Cabrera, Caligiuri, and other editors of the book are previous recipients of the PEN Prison Writing Awards.

Rattling the Cages: Oral Histories of North American Political Prisoners
AK Press, December 2023
Josh Davidson and Eric King
This volume contains interviews with over thirty current and former North American political prisoners. It provides first-hand details of prison life and the political commitments that continue to lead people in prison into direct confrontation with state authorities and institutions. Royalties from book sales are split between the Anarchist Black Cross Federation’s Warchest program, which provides financial support to currently imprisoned political prisoners, and the family of Eric King.

The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice
Harper, January 2024
Elizabeth Flock
In The Furies, Elizabeth Flock examines how women have used violence to fight back, and how views of women who defend their lives are often distorted by their depictions in media and pop culture. These three immersive narratives follow a young woman from Stevenson, Alabama; a leader of a gang in Uttar Pradesh, India; and a fighter in an all-female militia in Syria. Flock’s research with families, communities, and organizations spans three countries, and questions whether the fight for women’s safety is fully possible without force. Flock was a 2021-2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow.

Inside Knowledge: Incarcerated People on the Failures of the American Prison
New York University Press, January 2024
Doran Larson
Drawing from writings collected in the American Prison Writing Archive, Doran Larson argues that mass incarceration does more to perpetuate harm than mitigate it. The open-source archive was initiated in 2009 when Larson asked incarcerated people and prison staff to submit first-person narratives about life in prison. Since then, the archive has accumulated more than a thousand contributions.

American Inmate and Witness book covers

Books through Bars: Stories from the Prison Books Movement
University of Georgia Press, March 2024
Moira Marquis and Dave “Mac” Marquis
For the last seventy years, prison books programs in the United States have been reading letters written by incarcerated people and sending requested books in return. The essays in this edited volume explain the need for prison book programs, offer advice on how to establish or become involved with these projects, as well as reviews some of the current challenges with providing services and sending resources through carceral walls.

Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State
Haymarket Books, April 2024
Lyle C. May
In this groundbreaking collection of essays and interviews, PEN Prison Writing Award winner Lyle C. May challenges the myths, misconceptions, and misinformation about the criminal legal system and death in prison, guiding readers on a journey through North Carolina’s congregate death row, where the author has spent over twenty years of his life. Drawing on the work of Angela Y. Davis, Mariame Kaba, and other abolitionist scholars, May’s critical analysis of shifts in sentencing laws and prison policies are crucial to any understanding of incarceration and the history of death sentences in the United States.

American Inmate
Haymarket Books, April 2024
Justin Rovillos Monson
In his debut collection, Michigan-based poet Justin Rovillos Monson interweaves personal narrative with contemporary rap lyrics and institutional language. These poems deepen the nuances and dimensions of and within Asian American poetics, prison poetics, and hip-hop poetics through Monson’the poet’s experimental writing style. Monson asks: What does it mean to be in the world and yet live apart from it? What happens to the minds and bodies of those locked away? What happens to the minds and bodies of their loved ones? How can America get free? A PEN Prison Writing Award winner, Monson was a 2018-2019 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow.

Texas Letters, Vol. 2
Anthologic Publications, May 2024
The second volume of Texas Letters continues a deep exploration of solitary confinement in the state of Texas—the most populated state in a country that houses the largest prison system in the world. This anthropological project contains 38 unedited letters authored by over 30 individuals affected by the conditions of solitary confinement. These letters expose the brutal isolation that Texan prisons inflict upon individuals.