8 Books to Read on Mass Incarceration & the Criminal Justice System

This blogger firmly believes the first step to concrete prison reform efforts is education. If we have misguided notions about the root causes of mass incarceration subsequent reform efforts will be cursory & ineffective. For example, if we uncritically accept the common narrative that the majority of people are incarcerated on petty drug crimes we will aim our endeavors at tackling this avenue solely. But upon closer inspection only 16% of state prisoners are incarcerated for drug charges. Or if we inculcate the story that private prisons are to blame for the growth of mass incarceration we miss the observation that only 2% of CA prisoners are held in private prisons (and only 8% nationally). The reality remains that the single largest group of prisoners who enter prison walls every year are recidivists (parole violators). This trend has been remedied in CA under Realignment, but remains prominent in almost every other state. With this framework in mind, here are 8 suggestions for books that contextualize the urgency of prison & criminal justice reform:

Ghettoside, Jill Leovy

Black men in America represent 6% of the population, but account for 40% of homicide victims. In this book, which will bring you to tears if you have any semblance of a soul, Leovy traces this phenomenon and searches for the fundamental causes. The reader follows the story of a few LAPD homicide detectives as they deal with overburdened case loads and few resources to alleviate the strain. The only detective who lives in the South Central neighborhood he patrols watches his son senselessly murdered a few blocks from their home. The narrative of the book follows the subsequent investigation, trial, and sentencing while sprinkling in other relevant story lines.

Leovy’s analysis leads to a startling realization; namely that the black homicide problem is a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence. It’s a striking thesis to reach because it directly challenges the popular argument that urban communities of color are often over-policed.  Leovy juxtaposes this claim with her revelation that these communities are inadequately policed (given the low clearance rate on homicide cases). Since the law doesn’t value black lives highly the community internalizes this and reproduces a bleak self-image. Leovy convincingly argues that autonomy in turn counters homicide. This book is a three-hundred page reminder that Black Lives (and Black Minds) Matter.

Locked In, John Pfaff

In striving for meaningful prison reform one must first understand the institutional forces that shape mass incarceration, and there is no better place to begin a seminal understanding of this topic than this book. Locked In allows readers to delve deeper than the superficial tides of understanding that beseech common portrayals of mass incarceration. Pfaff challenges Michelle Alexander’s claim in The New Jim Crow that the failed War on Drugs, ill-advised sentencing laws, and the private prison complex have driven the decades-long surge in our prison population. He points out the overlooked culprits of mass incarceration (ahem, prosecutors we’re looking at you), while also paving a path for lasting reform. Reform, in his eyes, will mean re-evaluating how we deal with people convicted of violent crimes given that roughly ~60% of inmates are incarcerated on such charges. Locked In is a concise and cohesive work of legal scholarship that should be a prerequisite read for anyone discussing prison reform in the twenty-first century.

23/7 — Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement, Keramet Reiter

It is truly horrifying to ponder about the treatment of inmates kept in solitary confinement, and yet this work dedicates three hundred pages to just that. Reiter examines the creation of Pelican Bay Prison, the first carceral institution devised exclusively to house all inmates in solitary confinement. This panopticon design on steroids fueled by Californian penal exceptionalism is the ultimate illustration of a system that is not broken, but is functioning just as it was designed to. Reiter notes the arbitrary factors that can lead to CA prisoners being housed in solitary like gang membership. (75% of CA prisoners identify as gang-affiliated).

The social distance between the prisoner and citizen is profound, but it is even more exasperated by inmates in solitary lock up. Human beings at Pelican Bay spend 23 hours a day, 7 days a week in a tiny cell with no external stimuli at all. The UN has declared that a duration of solitary confinement for more than three weeks constitutes a human rights violation, but in CA there are prisoners who’ve spent 40 plus years in solitary confinement. The accounts from men incarcerated in such conditions are harrowing. One man describes it as being put into a tiny pod and shot into outer space with nothing to survive on. 23/7 paints a vivid picture of solitary confinement that one will not easily forget.

Golden Gulag — Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Golden Gulag in shining an inquisitive light on the biggest prison-building project in the history of the world. Gilmore provides an extremely detailed look at how CA became the international carceral anomaly that is. CA has built 22 prisons, but only 1 UC Campus since 1980 which has produced a disposable sub-culture of Californians targeted by the tentacles of the criminal justice system. Gilmore describes the expansion of prisons in CA as “a geographical solution to socio-economic problems”. The rise of the prison industrial complex in CA, in Gilmore’s eyes, was a series of developments in response to surpluses of capital, land, labor, and state capacity. This book is a dense read at times, but one will come out on the other side with a more nuanced understanding of mass incarceration that escapes most who talk about the issue.

Crook County — Racism and Injustice in America’s largest Criminal Court, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Crook County leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling about the role of courts in dispensing justice in America. Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor at Temple University, spent ten years conducting ethnographic research in the largest criminal courthouse in the country, and her findings confirm that idealized depictions of courts as impartial and sacred institutions is little more than a mirage. The legal world revealed in Crook County shows how inherently damaging the “colorblind” rhetoric truly is. Parallels to Jim Crow racial tropes abound when prosecutors and judges stop being polite and start getting racist. This book communicates how Courts, the gateway between policing and incarceration, operate in a racially skewed manner that is so insidiously unfair that it undermines the integrity of constitutional protections for fair trials. This blogger had the opportunity to attend an event at UC Berkeley before Crook County was released with the author that positively excited this student beyond recognizable reason.

Mass Incarceration on Trial — A remarkable court decision and the future of prisons in America, Jonathan Simon.

Professor Simon, one of the leading scholars on mass incarceration in the world,  offers a poignant account of how mass incarceration is innately unconstitutional. The conditions in which CA prisoners lived was so degrading that it forced the Supreme Court to remand CA into instituting population caps.  In the memorable opinion Justice Kennedy stated that, “Prisoners retain the essence of dignity inherent in all persons.” Quite the contrast from CA which had spent the previous forty years stripping prisoners of every last shred of dignity. Professor Simon theorizes that this recent case and future challenges will result in a “dignity cascade” in which the rights that have been denied for so long will come rushing back and will inform future incarcerate policy decisions. Mass Incarceration on Trial is highly accessible and easy to digest despite it’s technical backdrop, a testament to Professor Simon’s eloquent writing style. This blogger must admit an inherent bias as a student of Professor Simon at UC Berkeley, but it remains nonetheless as a great introduction for those curious just how rotten CA prisons were, and still are.

Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis

Angela Davis takes a sledgehammer to the social control underpinnings of mass incarceration and unflinchingly destroys every aspect of the odious system. Davis asks a fundamental question, why do we accept prisons as inevitable and permanent features of our lives? She confronts the reader to challenge inner convictions on why one signs off on a system that relegates large numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability.

Davis dedicates a portion of the book to addressing the invisible issues women in prison face. There are currently more women in prison in CA now than there were in the entire country in the early 1970’s. CA is home to the two largest women’s prisons in the world — and they are literally across the street from eachother in Cowchilla. This work is short, sweet, and gets right to the point. There is no surplus in this book, and one will leave with an enduring hope for prison abolitionist movements in the twenty-first century.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows the story of a lawyer valiantly litigating capital punishment cases in Alabama. The stories one encounters while reading this book illustrate how easy it is for the system to railroad innocent lives and condemn them to death. Stevenson, one of the most brilliant lawyers of our time, provides an unforgettable true story about the underrated potential for mercy in law. Just Mercy pulls on the heart strings but leaves one with a great appreciation for social justice organizations across the country.


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