Top 10 Books Written Behind Bars
Since the time of Saint Paul, great writing has come to us from authors in prison. Such works include thoughtful memoirs describing the author’s spiritual journey toward redemption. Other works are unapologetic, even decadent, provoking never-ending debate as to their literary value. Here are 10 examples of inspiring, influential, and provocative books that were written behind bars.
Cell 2455, Death Row: A Condemned Man’s Own Story by Caryl Chessman
In 1948, Caryl Chessman received the death penalty for robbery, kidnapping, and rape. While serving his time in San Quentin State Prison, Chessman wrote a memoir, Cell 2455, as well as other books about crime and the prison system. Although relatively unknown today, Chessman’s case drew attention and support from around the world. He even appeared on the cover of the March 21, 1960, issue of Time Magazine. Chessman was executed after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution.
In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison by Jack Abbott
Jack Abbott’s letters to author Norman Mailer describing life in prison were published in 1981 as In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. Mailer recognized Abbott’s talent and successfully campaigned he be released on parole after having served several years for forgery, stabbing another inmate to death, and robbing a bank after briefly escaping from prison. Tragically, just a few weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed a man to death. He returned to prison, where he eventually ended his life by suicide.
Conversations With Myself by Nelson Mandela
Former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 to 1990 for his role in the apartheid resistance movement. Conversations With Myself includes several of Mandela’s writings done while in prison. Critics and historians have noted the collection provides a fascinating emotional subtext to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. “Until I was jailed,” writes Mandela. “I never fully appreciated the capacity of memory.”
Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters) compiled by Wally Lamb
New York Times bestselling author Wally Lamb has taught writing to women in prison for many years. Couldn’t Keep It to Myself is a collection of essays by women he’s taught, each now empowered by their ability to convey their life stories in writing. Bonnie Foreshaw, who contributed to the collections, says, “What I hope is that people reading this book will bear in mind that we are human beings first, inmates second.”
Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars by Kenneth Hartman
Kenneth Hartman is a contributing writer to The Huffington Post and a published author. Since 1990, he’s served a life sentence with no possibility of parole for killing a man in a drunken fistfight. He was only 19 at the time of his conviction. In his memoir, Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars, Hartman unflinchingly describes his literary and spiritual journey without a trace of self-pity. A recording of Hartman reading the first chapter of Mother California is available on his website.
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Jean Genet wrote what would become his first published novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, while in Santé Prison, initially on brown paper provided to prisoners to create paper bags. The novel’s collage-like structure, explicit descriptions of homosexuality, and mixture of poetry and slang was hugely influential on the writing of the American Beats. Genet biographer Edmund White wrote of Our Lady of the Flowers, “If anyone in prison had bothered actually to read what he was writing, Genet would have been in trouble, since his work made clear he had no intention of reforming, getting a job and renouncing crime.”
Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
While serving a sentence for marijuana possession at Soledad Correctional Training Facility and another later sentence at San Quentin State Prison for attempted murder, Eldridge Cleaver read and found himself inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, and Malcolm X to name just a few. His still-controversial 1968 collection of essays Soul on Ice, mostly written while he was in prison, had a profound influence on the black power movement and established his status as one of the most influential American political activists of the ’60s and ’70s. The beginning of The Black Panthers’ complex history and Cleaver’s own political and spiritual development begins in this brutal, intelligently written memoir.
Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in the German resistance movement against Nazism. He was imprisoned and ultimately hung for his involvement in plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography, appearing for the first time in English translation in 1953, influenced both Christian and secular thinkers, activists, and leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives by Judith Tannenbaum
Writer Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson met at San Quentin State Prison where Jackson was serving a sentence for murder. By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is a collaborative memoir, born out of their connection as teacher and pupil and as fellow poets. The book alternates chapter by chapter between Tannenbaum and Jackson to tell the life stories of two very different people, each with “one foot in darkness, the other in light.”
Death Around the Corner by C-Murder
Written during his electronically monitored house arrest, C-Murder’s Death Around the Corner is a fictional account of growing up young, black, and poor in New Orleans’ Calliope projects. C-Murder, real name Corey Miller, drew on his own life experience to tell the story of Daquan, a young man whose father is jailed for a murder Daquan witnesses as a child. There’s a moral center to the book that elevates the matter-of-fact descriptions of drug abuse, sex, and violence to that of great, autobiographical literature. A chapter describing Daquan’s visit to see his imprisoned father is one of the book’s many surprisingly poignant and effective moments. Miller’s life sentence for murder was recently upheld, and he is currently serving his sentence in Louisiana State Penitentiary.
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Hey thanks! Now I have a few more for the tbr pile.
Have you read Burglars in Blue by Art Winstanley? It’s a memoir from a Denver Cop busted for burglary and then sent to prison.
And then of course, Other Lands Have Dreams by Kathy Kelly, a peace activist sent to prison with kind of a different look on life.
Been enjoying your posts for a while now, hope tomorrow’s Castle doesn’t suck.
It’s now on the list. Thanks, Peg.
This is a great list, Lee. But I think you overlooked–or omitted–one of the greatest of these:
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written and published in 1678 while he was imprisoned for “for violations of the Conventicle Act, which prohibited the holding of religious services outside the auspices of the established Church of England.”
Pilgrim’s Progress properly titled: “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come” is an allegory. Christian, an everyman character, is the protagonist of the allegory, which centers itself in his journey from his hometown, the “City of Destruction” (“this world”), to the “Celestial City” (“that which is to come”: Heaven) atop Mt. Zion.
I think it belongs on your list. Just sayin’ . . .