Beyond 'Orange is the New Black': 8 eye-opening prison books

A prisoner at San Quentin

An inmate named Mike Bjorlin looks out over the yard at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California. The image is from Heather Rowley's 2008 book "Is It Safe? Essays and Photographs of Students in the San Quentin College Program." (Heather Rowley / Prison University Project)

Like a lot of people, I got sucked in by the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black": the totally backstabby soap operatic twists, Lea DeLaria's comedic awesomeness as Big Boo, the luminosity of Samira Wiley as Poussey (memo to execs: please cast her in everything!), all of the inventive tampon sculptures, and the fact that there exists a buzzed-about show with a bunch of African American women and Latinas.

OK, so they're all in prison. But at least they're full characters with developed stories and they're not naked or in skin-tight outfits all the time. (In Hollywood, this appears to be as good as it gets.)

It probably goes without saying that the show bears only the faintest resemblance to reality, as this review by an ex-con will attest. (Be forewarned: There are expletives.) But it is inspired by a reality that is quite grim: The United States is the world leader in incarceration. This includes the regular jailing of nonviolent offenders, some of whom are given life sentences for crimes such as stealing a jacket. And it has shaped our culture in curious ways, from the TV shows we watch to the songs we hear on the radio.

"Orange is the New Black" is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, a middle-class, Smith College grad who was sentenced to 15 months at a minimum-security prison on a drug-trafficking charge. While it has its funny moments, the book, like many prison memoirs, also details the boredom, the complete loss of privacy and the petty humiliations that come with doing time.

Moreover, unlike her television counterpart (called Piper Chapman in the series), Kerman is contrite, fully aware of the privilege her race and social status have granted her.

As she writes in the book: "It was hard for me to believe that the nature of our crimes accounted for my fifteen-month sentence versus some of my neighbors' much lengthier ones. I had a fantastic private attorney and a country-club suit to go with my blond bob."

The experience leads her to question the effectiveness of the penal system. "Our system of 'corrections,'" she writes, "is about arm's-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in."

Kerman's book adds to an extensive amount of literature on the subject of prison, and with it, has brought renewed attention to the uneven, often punitive ways in which our society chooses to deal with those who commit crimes. This comes at a time when there is a growing disillusionment with the "war on drugs" and there is regular talk of sentencing reform and sentence reduction. In fact, just last weekend, rapper Jay-Z came out in favor of a California measure that would reduce penalties for nonviolent crimes.

With all of that in mind, I thought this represented a perfect time to take a look back at the body of literature about incarceration. Rather than choose the books myself, however, I've turned to three cultural figures who are interested in the topic of prisons, and they each share works that they consider insightful or influential. They include:

Some of the books they list here are well-known; others, not. But they are all eye-opening. I did ask them to leave two widely celebrated books off the list since they have already gotten plenty of ink: Sister Helen Prejean's "Dead Man Walking," which analyzes the moral and financial costs of the death penalty (and was turned into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), and "Live From Death Row," Mumia Abu Jamal's unflinching look at life behind bars.

In no particular order, here are eight books about prison life in America:

"Inside This Place, But Not Of It: Narratives From Women's Prisons," by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi. One of the criticisms I've heard leveled at "Orange Is the New Black" is that it took a prison memoir by a middle-class white woman to draw attention to the issue of women in prison. This book records all of the voices you may not have heard before. It is comprised of oral histories by women of all races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, who tell the unvarnished story of their lives in and out of prison. (These are often filled with violence — at the hands of family members, partners and prison guards.)

"The prison system is built on the assumption of men, of controlling their violent tendencies," says Brook. "So for women, that kind of discipline and management doesn't meet their needs and can be unnecessarily punitive." It's a growing issue, since women represent a rising part of the prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, the rate of female incarceration is nearly 1.5 times the rate of men. 

"Are Prisons Obsolete?" by Angela Davis. Both Zamorano and Brook listed Davis' work as essential reading on the question of prisons, especially given their booming growth over the last three decades. In the '80s, the U.S. prison population stood at roughly 200,000. By 2012, that number had exploded, to more than 2.3 million. "Davis' book looks at the prison industrial complex," says Zamorano. "This is a billion-dollar business where everything is all about money. Building supermaxes, moving prisoners around like sheep — nothing is done because it makes sense for the inmate. Decisions are done on whether it will make money. It's sad. No one is thinking about how they might take some of that money and put into the school system, or into services in neighborhoods where it might make a real difference, where you actually prevent kids from going to prison to begin with."

"Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing," by Ted Conover. Unable to gain access to a prison for a story about corrections officers, Conover, a journalist, became one himself — at Sing Sing, no less, one of the most notorious maximum security lock-ups in the United States. "It's part of that great tradition of gonzo journalism," says Brook. "He covers the history, the architecture, the routines, the rules, both spoken and unspoken. It's a fantastic description of how otherworldly prisons are. And how they can be toxic places for everyone involved. Certainly, every prison has its own culture and Sing Sing is just one prison. But the book gets across the coercive nature of the environment. You try to figure stuff out as quickly as possible and you don't ruffle feathers. Prison is not a place where you expand your mind. It's about keeping your head down."

"A Prison and a Prisoner," by Susan Sheehan. Though it was originally published in the late 1970s and is now out of print (though readily available online), Heinlein says this book is essential reading when it comes to understanding the history of prisons in the U.S. For one, Sheehan got unparalleled access to the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in upstate New York. "Today it would be impossible to get that kind of access," says Heinlein. "It's an excellent example of immersion."

The book records the mundane aspects of daily life in prison for a single inmate Sheehan calls George Malinow. "She builds this narrative on what a prisoner does day after day," says Heinlein. "How they work, how the prison complex works, how prisons influence each other. Her style is very sober and accurate and exact, which almost mimics her subject's environment, where everything is governed by rules and regulations."

"The book is also important because it captures this turning point," she continues. "In the mid-'70s, America gave up on the idea that we could rehabilitate prisoners, and that's when prisons became more punitive, more about punishment. That had an enormous effect on our criminal justice system."

"Is It Safe? Essays by Students in the San Quentin College Program," by Heather Rowley. "If we are going to deal with correcting abuses, we need to understand that inmates are part of our society, not outside of it," says Brook. "We need photography that shows that these people, at the end of the day, are not radically different from us." This book by Heather Rowley, he says, is an excellent step in that direction. "Photography has been done in prison, but you don't always get the prisoner's voice. This includes that. And Rowley took great care in photographing her subjects. If you walk up to a male prisoner with a camera, the first thing they will do is take off their top and show you their tattoos. They don't have a lot of belongings, so the tattoos become this code. But the image, by now, is cliché. The good thing about Rowley's work is that you see men engaged in poetry or taking a moment, looking away from or directly at the camera. You know the artist cared enough to spend time with her subjects."

For those who want to delve deeper into the area of prison photography, Brook recommends two older photographic books, too: "Concrete Mama" by John McCoy and Ethan Hoffman, and "The Prison Experience" by Morrie Cahmi, both of which demonstrate nuance, sensitivity and remarkable shooting skills.

"All God's Children," by Fox Butterfield. "This is the book you read when you ask yourself, 'Why do people end up in prison?'" says Heinlein. "Butterfield really gives us an incredible historical perspective. He follows the case of Willie Bosket, who was convicted of killing two people on the subway in New York when he was 15.

"He talks to Bosket for like 300 hours, but what's more significant, is that he goes back and he traces the culture of violence that Boskett had grown up in going back generations, all the way back to slavery. He talks about how each generation's behavior was the result of the previous generation's behavior and how this all got passed down. I think what makes it really important is that we live in a time when there are all kinds of medical studies about why people might commit crimes. That it might be lack of Omega-3 or exposure to lead. But this book reminds us that we need to be careful with those conclusions. We need to take responsibility for creating an environment that breeds and supports violence over generations."

"We're All Doing Time," by Bo Lozoff. Though not technically about prison (and written by a troubled author), Zamorano says that this simple, straightforward book is widely read by inmates for the message of spiritual hope it imparts. "When you're locked up, you are just sitting there with your mind," she says. "You'll do things like go to church and read the Bible. You'll be looking for something. This book, which had letters from ex-prisoners and current prisoners, well, you feel connected to it. It teaches you how to meditate and pray and do yoga. This book, for me, it was my guide to getting free."

"Who Named the Knife? A True Story of Murder and Memory," by Linda Spalding. Again, this is not specifically a prison memoir. Instead it tells the story of a relationship between a writer and a woman convicted of a murder her husband likely committed. "It's a genre-bending book," says Heinlein. "It's part memoir, part biography. It's also  literary. She describes the prison part quite vividly. The humiliations that come with going behind bars: the searches, the waiting, how people live. But it's also an amazing reminder of how one short encounter can change our lives forever. In a way, it gets at the story of so many women in prison who are there not because they committed the crime but because they were accessories. It really shows you how much one moment can change a life."

Final performances of "Locked Up", by Patricia Zamorano, are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Casa 0101 Theater, 2009 East 1st St., Boyle Heights, casa0101.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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