The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 724 people in prison out of every 100,000. While the US is only about 4.4% of the world’s population, it makes up 22% of the world’s prisoners. Rates of incarceration have been steadily climbing over the past four decades, and the majority of those going to prison are brown, black, and largely poor. But for many writers, the prison system isn’t broken — in fact, it’s working just how it was designed to. No, for the authors on this list, the prison system needs to be abolished.
Many activists and organizers use the term “Prison Industrial Complex” to refer to the vast web of governmental, corporate, and industry interests that together facilitate and even encourage the increased expansion of policing and imprisonment technologies in the United States. This includes school policing techniques that foster the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ private prison corporations that contract out their cheap labor force, and the politicians (liberal and conservative) that enact policies that criminalize poverty. And the harm doesn’t end when people leave prison. Instead, there are multiple barriers to assimilation into life on the outside that means high recidivism.
“The PIC isn’t just the barred building, but the many ways in which un-freedom is enforced and continues to proliferate throughout urban and rural communities: injunction zones and intensive policing, felony jackets and outstanding warrants, as well as school expulsions and job exclusions.” – Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The most insidious of all is the ways that the prison system has been naturalized in our society. But prisons are not natural – in their current form, they haven’t even been around for that long. That the idea of prison abolition is so frightening to people shows just how limited our imaginations really are when it comes to community accountability, social justice, and care. What does a rehabilitative approach to drug abuse, crime, and violence look like? How can we build trust with our neighbors, such that calling each other is preferable to calling the police? How do we support those who have been traumatized by their time on the inside? In addition to these questions, this list speaks to the intersections of ability, gender, and race in the machinations of the prison system. These books show how trans people, people with disabilities, and undocumented people each face distinct forms of violence and oppression when faced with incarceration. At the end of this post, you’ll find a short list of orgs that are doing amazing intersectional work around decarceration and abolition. Check them out to learn how to get involved.
The History of Criminalization and Perspectives on the Current Situation
1. Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
2. The Prison and the American Imagination (Yale Studies in English) by Caleb Smith
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
4. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (American Crossroads) by Kelly Lytle Hernandez
5. Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (Justice, Power, and Politics) by Talitha LeFlouria
6. Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime by Dylan Rodríguez
7. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
8. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne
“Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.” – Angela Davis
Prison at the Intersections of Gender & Ability
9. Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You
10. Captive Genders: Transembodiment and Prison Industrial Complex by Nat Smith, Eric Stanley (2011) Paperback
11. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade
12. Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada by Allison C. Carey
13. Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation by Beth E. Richie
14. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Queer Ideas/Queer Action) by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock
15. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris
Writings by People Currently or Formerly Incarcerated
16. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
17. Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights Open Media) by Mumia Abu Jamal
18. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Rethinking the Future of Prisons
19. The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
20. Instead Of Prisons: A Handbook For Abolitionists by Prison Research Education Action
21. Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis (Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation Ser.)
22. Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology edited by INCITE!
Grassroots Organizations Working to Abolish Prisons: