Ten must-read books on prisons and criminal justice reform

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Ten must-read books on prisons and criminal justice reform

Post  Yoke on Wed May 13, 2009 12:00 pm

Ten must-read books on prisons and criminal justice reform

There are hundreds of books on criminal justice out there - from pulp legal thrillers to dry law texts. But somewhere between trashy and arid, we find these 10 gems - must-reads from the last four decades that cover the world's courts and prisons from every angle.

1. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

Michel Foucault

Considered by many to be the greatest work by 20th Century French philosopher Michel Foucault, this book examines the transition in Western countries from execution and torture to mass imprisonment. A prescient classic.

2. Dead Man Walking (1994)

Sister Helen Prejean

This moving personal account of Prejean's moral opposition to capital punishment made her the face of the movement to end the death penalty. In this book, she tells of serving as a spiritual advisor to two Louisiana death row inmates before they are executed. The book was later adapted into a major film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Also by Prejean: "The Death of Innocents - An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions."

3. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (1979)

Jeffrey Reiman

An important textbook by American University philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman on class inequality in our criminal justice system. Reiman argues that the American criminal justice system punishes the poor while ignoring white-collar crime and injustice.

4. The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A personal account of life in the Soviet Union's horrifying labor camps by the late Russian Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned and then exiled by the Soviet state for his writings. This book is an indispensable examination of human rights violations and the horrors possible in a society that incarcerates millions.

5. Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town (2005)

Nate Blakeslee

The stunning tale of a rash of false and overstated drug arrests in a small Texas town in 1999 that left 20% of the town's African-Americans in jail - many of them completely innocent. Blakeslee then examines the case to overturn their convictions. This book tells the story of the injustice of America's War on Drugs through a fascinating microcosm. A forthcoming film from director John Singleton is based on the book.

6. In Cold Blood (1966)

Truman Capote

The book that inaugurated the "true crime" genre that continues to fascinate readers around the world today. It's a classic, gripping character study and a compelling glimpse into the minds of two men who committed several heinous, and seemingly random, murders. Capote captures the reader's attention with wonderful - and sympathetic - profiles of the victims and the men executed for killing them. In the process, he questions the American criminal justice system, its role in creating the two men who committed these murders, and the justice - or lack thereof - offered by the death penalty.

7. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It - A Judicial Indictment on the War on Drugs (2001)

James Gray

Gray, a prosecutor and judge, offers a fierce and thorough indictment of America's War on Drugs - calling it a waste of time, money and lives. He argues that incarcerating hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders has diverted precious government resources from more important needs, and presents as evidence statistics, case studies, and the words of dozens of participants in all aspects the legal system.

8. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (2007)

Jeffrey Toobin

A surprising page-turner chronicling the current U.S. Supreme Court and how it came to be. Toobin walks readers through the nomination of justices Rehnquist through Alito, and covers the major decisions through this era, comparing the court with its predecessors throughout American history. Toobin focuses on major decisions made by this court and these justices, and renders harsh judgment of what he considers a major blunder by the court in the Bush v. Gore in 2000. Through extensive interviews with former clerks, friends of the justices, and others, Toobin offers a rare backstage view of the most powerful court in the country.

9. Actual Innocence (2000)

Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer

This book introduced the American public to the new era of criminal justice ushered in by DNA science. The founders of the non-profit Innocence Project (for whom I work), writing with New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, detail the causes of wrongful conviction as they've been revealed by DNA testing and how these causes play a part in all convictions - not just those involving DNA testing.

10. Courtroom 302 (2006)

Steve Bogira

An extraordinary and memorable account of a year in a criminal courtroom on Chicago's South Side, this book leaves the reader with an insider's knowledge of America's criminal justice system, from the perspective of defendants, guards, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and reporters

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