Albert Woodfox spent almost 45 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours a day. Despite this, he says that his mind was free, in large part because he still had access to books. In other words, reading is freedom, and can help us see a pathway out of our current reality. Whether you’re new to the issue of mass incarceration, or directly impacted by it, our summer reading list has a book or two for you! From the racist history of modern-day slavery to the possibilities of a world without prisons, this list will take you from past, to present, to future. Can you finish this list before the summer is over? Challenge on!
This book should really be in the #1 spot, but we are starting this list with books that teach us how mass incarceration became a system of racial control and its impacts today. Alexander challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama created a new era of colorblindness, arguing that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." This is a must read for those who haven’t read this book before or are new to the issue. And, if you have already read this book, it’s a book worth reading again!
We love this book not only because it is written by a formerly incarcerated person, but also because Curtis used to co-lead our Shreveport chapter of VOTE (and is now using his talents as a certified paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center). Our leader Norris Henderson often says that “ those closest to the issue are closest to the solution,” and Curtis is a great example of this kind of leadership. Through a collection of essays and articles, Curtis illustrates the current state of the Louisiana criminal (in)justice system and its failures. Through his first (and likely not last) publication, he answers such questions as: how did Louisiana become the state with the highest incarceration rate? Why are more than 80 percent of Louisiana prisoners of African descent? We’ll give you a hint: it has to do with white supremacy and enslavement by design.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a feature on the Netflix movie, 13th. Stevenson shows how the current issues of the criminal (in)justice system by sharing his experience of working as a civil rights lawyer fighting for the rights of death row prisoners. This inspiring and powerful book about defending those who are incarcerated includes stories of those who are still on the inside. Stevenson epitomizes how one person can change many lives.
Woodfox, the aforementioned survivor of solitary confinement, is a Native New Orleanian who spent almost five decades in lockdown for a crime he did not commit. One would think that this experience would push him to be defeated, but those harsh years of enduring violence and deprivation have instead inspired him to demand an end to this form of torture. As part of the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition, last month we hosted a press conference where Woodfox and other survivors of solitary spoke about their experiences. Their words align with a groundbreaking new report that includes testimonies from more than 700 people currently on lockdown--the largest ever of its kind. Watch the whole conference here, then come to our next coalition meeting!
We know that racial discrimination is one of the root causes of criminal (in)justice system. The Hate U Give is narrated by a 16-year-old girl whose life becomes public on a national level when she witnesses a white police officer fatally shoot her childhood friend, Khali, who is a Black teen. She is the only one who can share what really happened that night Khali was shot, and what she says has an effect on her community. Through fiction, this book attempts to teach readers what life is like for a young Black person in America.
The story of five young boys who were wrongfully convicted has been brought in the spotlight again by Ava DuVernay’s new series, When They See Us. Whether or not you have already seen the series, this book is a must-read to understand the deep-rooted race and class divisions in New York City at the time of the conviction, and how this case could've easily been in Louisiana, too. Sarah Burns tells the full story of this historic case as a microcosm of the ongoing criminal (in)justice system in America. This is a thought-provoking summer read for those who want to learn more about institutional racism and the challenges that young men of color face from arrest to sentencing and beyond. While this book and those before it have painted a picture of mass incarceration today and how it came to be, we also know that we need resources that can help us imagine a world without incarceration. The next books on this list will take you on that very journey into the future.
One out of every 7 people in prison in the United States is currently serving a life sentence. The Meaning of Life advocates for the end of life sentences, as well as reducing all sentences to 20 years or less. The authors explain how most incarcerated people age out of crime and once they are in their 40s, meaning that from then on they are at a very low risk of recidivism. This is a book for those who hunger for compassion and justice.
Imagine a world without prisons, a world more focused on healing and rehabilitation than punishment. Are Prisons Obsolete? advocates for the end of incarceration. Longtime prison abolitionist Angela Davis describes how prisons perpetuate racism and sexism, and imprison Black and Latinx individuals for capitalistic reasons. For generations of Americans, people thought the abolishment of slavery was not attainable, but it was. People thought segregation would last a lifetime, but it did not. Now we are asking you to believe in a world without mass incarceration. This book is a must read for those who are ready to take on the case for the complete abolition of all prisons.
Danielle Sered is a good friend of VOTE’s, but that’s not the only reason we chose this book for our list. Sered helps us see the possible future by offering insight into how we can address violence without relying on the inhumanity of mass incarceration. This book centers not just the stories, but also the desires of survivors of violence in terms of healing, accountability and interacting with the people who hurt them. She shows that people who commit violent crimes can accept responsibility and make meaningful amends to those they have hurt--something that the current process of trials, sentencing and incarceration doesn’t allow for.
Last but not least, this book discusses one of VOTE’s most important values: community. This book influenced Woodfox, the author of Solitary (which is earlier on this list), to believe that one man can make a difference. The Different Drum describes what community means, how it can be developed on the principles of love and tolerance, and how it transforms our lives. Peck addresses the stages of spiritual growth and shows how the weaknesses of human nature and lack of true community in the world have led to some of the world’s most pressing problems. This book is for those who seek to learn how to be authentically part of communities and how, together, we have the solution.