Literature for Justice

[We] chose a body of literature that critically and anecdotally explores our nation’s prisons and the crisis of mass incarceration.

—Inaugural Literature for Justice Committee

The Literature for Justice Committee is honored to select five books that explore the criminal justice system and aim to help advance public understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. In the second year of this initiative, the selection committee deemed it crucial to focus on those often neglected in public conversations on mass incarceration: women and families. The list centers first-person narratives from formerly incarcerated authors, partners of those behind bars, and leaders of prison reform and abolition movements since the 1980s. Similarly to the inaugural year, the committee hoped to provide multiple access points, including research-based nonfiction, memoir, and fiction.

—Literature for Justice Committee


    • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, Simon & Schuster, May 2018)



The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir

by asha bandele (Scribner, Simon & Schuster, May 1999)


“asha bandele is a poetic writer and searing intellect, one of the leading voices in the movement to end mass incarceration. The Prisoner’s Wife is her lyrical memoir of falling in love with an imprisoned man, a journey that takes her deep into an intimate exploration of truth, harm, forgiveness, redemption, and, in the end, the inhumanity of human caging.”
—Kelly Lytle Hernandez, author of City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965


As a favor for a friend, a bright and talented young woman volunteered to read her poetry to a group of prisoners during a Black History Month program. It was an encounter that would alter her life forever, because it was there, in the prison, that she would meet Rashid, the man who was to become her friend, her confidant, her husband, her lover, her soul mate. At the time, Rashid was serving a sentence of twenty years to life for his part in a murder. The Prisoner’s Wife is a testimony, for wives and mothers, friends and families. It’s a tribute to anyone who has ever chosen, against the odds, to love.

asha bandele. Photo credit: Adama Delphine Fawandu


asha bandele is an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of six books, including the widely acclaimed memoir, The Prisoner’s Wife, and novel, Daughter. Her most recent work is a collaborative effort with Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors, who courageously shared her story of challenge and triumph with asha in When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. An advocate for racial justice and prison abolition, asha serves as political and organizational management consultant for foundations, PACs and nonprofits across the field. But of all her work, none has been more central than her role as the single parent of an exquisite daughter, Nisa, and stepmother to a brilliant son, Aundre, who was murdered in 2015.


Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women

by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn (The New Press, May 2017)


Becoming Ms. Burton tells the extraordinary life story of the renowned activist Susan Burton, recounting her journey through the criminal injustice system and her transformation into a life of advocacy on behalf of formerly incarcerated women who are struggling to heal, survive and thrive. Her award-winning organization, A New Way of Life, has transformed the lives of more than a thousand formerly incarcerated women and is an international model for a more compassionate and effective approach to poverty, abuse, addiction, and other behaviors or harms that have been effectively criminalized.”
— Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


In this “stirring and moving tour-de-force” (John Legend), Susan Burton movingly recounts her own journey through the criminal justice system and her transformation into a life of advocacy. After a childhood of immense pain, poverty, and abuse in Los Angeles, the tragic loss of her son led her into addiction, which in turn led to arrests and incarceration. During the War on Drugs, Burton was arrested and would cycle in and out of prison for more than fifteen years. When, by chance, she finally received treatment, her political awakening began and she became a powerful advocate for “a more humane justice system guided by compassion and dignity” (Booklist, starred review). Her award-winning organization, A New Way of Life, has transformed the lives of more than one thousand formerly incarcerated women and is an international model for a less punitive and more effective approach to rehabilitation and reentry.

Susan Burton


Susan Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life, a nonprofit that provides sober housing and other support to formerly incarcerated women. Nationally known as an advocate for restoring basic civil and human rights to those who have served time, Burton was a winner of AARP’s prestigious Purpose Prize and has been a Starbucks “Upstander,” a CNN Top 10 Hero, and a Soros Justice Fellow. The author, with Cari Lynn, of Becoming Ms. Burton, she lives in Los Angeles.

Cari Lynn. Photo credit: Shawn Barber

Cari Lynn is a journalist and the author of five books of nonfiction, including Leg the Spread and The Whistleblower (with Kathryn Bolkovac). Lynn has written for O, The Oprah MagazineHealth; the Chicago Tribune; and Deadline Hollywood. The author, with Susan Burton, of Becoming Ms. Burton, she lives in Los Angeles.


Are Prisons Obsolete?

by Angela Y. Davis (Seven Stories Press, April 2003)


“Angela Y. Davis published Are Prisons Obsolete? in 2004. The question is both the question and the answer. We live in a country that takes the incarcerating of millions and millions of its citizens as a given. Davis’s poignant account challenges us, one would hope, out of complacency. It just demands that we ask: what of this madness are we really willing to accept is legitimate in our names?”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm, a 2018-2019 Literature for Justice title


With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly, the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political, and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.

In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for “decarceration” and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.

Angela Y. Davis


For more than fifty years, Angela Y. Davis has been active in numerous organizations challenging prison-related repression. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, Davis studied at Brandeis University, the Sorbonne, and with Herbert Marcuse at the Goethe Institute. Her advocacy on behalf of political prisoners, and her alleged connection to the Marin County courthouse incident, led to three capital charges, sixteen months in jail awaiting trial, and a highly publicized acquittal in 1972. In 1998, Davis was one of the twenty-five organizers of the historic Berkeley, California conference “Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.” She is the author of many books, including Are Prisons Obsolete? and The Meaning of Freedom. She is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


The Mars Room

by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, Simon & Schuster, May 2018)


“The portraits of incarcerated women in The Mars Room are as intimate as a diary, as vivid as a hologram, and as diverse and complex as our country. The novel reveals that inside every prison is a universe, populated by individual humans whose souls contain universes.”
—Zachary Lazar, author of Vengeance: A Novel


It’s 2003 and Romy Hall, named after a German actress, is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: her young son, Jackson, and the San Francisco of her youth. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, portrayed with great humor and precision.

Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room is “wholly authentic…profound…luminous” (The Wall Street Journal), “one of those books that enrage you even as they break your heart” (The New York Times Book Review)—a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America.

Rachel Kushner


Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a Finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a Finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.


Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair

by Danielle Sered (The New Press, March 2019)


“Danielle Sered’s brilliant book Until We Reckon challenges us to rethink the idea that punishment is the only solution to violent crime. As politicians and criminal justice reform activists work on reducing America’s prison population, what’s often glossed over is how to address those convicted of crimes deemed violent. Until We Reckon offers solutions rooted in the tradition of restorative justice that centers victims and perpetrators in the communal healing process. Sered’s wisdom and sharp insights are the guiding lights needed to illuminate a process of restorative justice for those grappling with dismantling the prison industrial complex.”
—Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison


Although over half the people incarcerated in America today have committed violent offenses, the focus of reformers has been almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses. Danielle Sered’s brilliant and groundbreaking Until We Reckon steers directly and unapologetically into the question of violence, offering approaches that will help end mass incarceration and increase safety.

Widely recognized as one of the leading proponents of a restorative approach to violent crime, Sered asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration and argues persuasively that the needs of survivors of violent crime are better met by asking people who commit violence to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends in ways that are meaningful to those they have hurt—none of which happens in the context of a criminal trial or a prison sentence.

Critically, Sered argues that the reckoning owed is not only on the part of those who have committed violence, but also by our nation’s overreliance on incarceration to produce safety—at great cost to communities, survivors, racial equity, and the very fabric of our democracy.

Danielle Sered


Danielle Sered leads the award-winning Brooklyn-based Common Justice, which develops and advances solutions to violence that meet the needs of those harmed and advance racial equity without relying on incarceration. She is the author of Until We Reckon.



Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights attorney, advocate, legal scholar, and author of The New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Jim Crow helped spark a national debate about the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and inspired racial justice organizing and advocacy efforts nationwide. Numerous commentators have dubbed The New Jim Crow, ”the bible of a social movement,” and the book has become a staple of university curriculums, advocacy training, reading groups, and faith-based study circles. Alexander has been featured on national radio and television media outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Bill Moyers Journal, the Tavis Smiley Show, MSNBC, C-SPAN, and Democracy Now. She has also written for numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post. Alexander has served as a professor at several universities, including Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor of Law and where she directed the Civil Rights Clinics. She also taught at Ohio State University where she held a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Alexander served as a Soros Justice Fellow in 2005 and was appointed a Senior Fellow for the Ford Foundation in 2015. Prior to entering academia, Alexander served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, where she coordinated the Project’s media advocacy, grassroots organizing, coalition-building, and litigation. The Project’s priority areas were educational equity and criminal justice reform, and it was during those years that she launched a major campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement, known as the “DWB Campaign” or “Driving While Black or Brown Campaign.” In addition to her nonprofit advocacy experience, Alexander has worked as a litigator at private law firms, including at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, in Oakland, California, where she specialized in plaintiff-side class action lawsuits alleging race and gender discrimination. Currently, Alexander is a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she is exploring the moral and spiritual dimensions of mass incarceration. She is also an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and lawyer. His writing grapples with the central role of incarceration to the American experience. His next collection of poetry, Felon, will be published in October 2019 by W.W.Norton & Company. His previous collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era  received the 2016 New England Award in Poetry. His first collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, won the Beatrice Hawley Awards and was selected by the National Book Foundation’s Literature for Justice Committee as a 2018-2019 title. Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. He is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2018 Emerson Fellow at New America. He holds a BA from the University of Maryland, an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and a JD from Yale Law School.

Zachary Lazar

Zachary Lazar is the author of five books, including the novels Vengeance, Sway, and I Pity the Poor Immigrant, a New York Times Notable Book. His memoir, Evening’s Empire, an account of his father’s murder, led to a further engagement with incarceration and the criminal justice system through a journalism project at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the root of his most recent novel, Vengeance. Lazar’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Lazar lives in New Orleans and is on the creative writing faculty at Tulane University, where he teaches an introductory creative writing course that pairs Tulane students with an equal number of students incarcerated at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. He also serves on the advisory board of the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship. Vengeance is the 2019 selection of One Book One New Orleans and the Tulane Reading Project, the shared reading experience for the incoming freshman class.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez

Kelly Lytle Hernandez is a professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she holds The Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History and is a recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is also the Director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. One of the nation’s leading experts on race, immigration, and mass incarceration, she is the author of the award-winning books, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol and City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles. City of Inmates recently won the 2018 James Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, 2018 Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association, the 2018 John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association, and a 2018 American Book Award. Currently, Professor Lytle Hernandez is the Director and Principal Investigator for Million Dollar Hoods, a university-based, community-drive research project that maps the fiscal and human cost of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. For her leadership on the Million Dollar Hoods team, Professor Lytle Hernandez was awarded the 2018 Local Hero Award from KCET/PBS and the 2019 Catalyst Award from the South LA parent/student advocacy organization, CADRE.

Shaka Senghor. Photo credit: Shawn Lee Studios

Shaka Senghor is a leading voice in criminal justice reform and proud native of Detroit. His memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, was released in March 2016 and debuted on the New York Times and The Washington Post bestseller lists. Shaka is a former MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, and a former Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network. Shaka’s 2014 TED Talk was featured in their “Year in Ideas” roundup, a curated collection of the year’s most powerful TED Talks and has over 1.5 million views. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2012 Black Male Engagement Leadership Award, the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award, the 2016 Ford Man of Courage Award, and the 2016 NAACP Great Expectations Award. Shaka was recently recognized by OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) as a “Soul Igniter” in the inaugural class of the SuperSoul 100, a dynamic group of trailblazers whose vision and life’s work are bringing a higher level of consciousness to the world around them and encouraging others to do the same. He is a 2016 Ebony Magazine Power 100 Honoree. He has taught at the University of Michigan and shares his story of redemption around the world. Shaka was selected as one of 24 icons being featured in the upcoming Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service entitled “Men of Change,” debuting in the fall of 2019. Today, Shaka sits as President of Shaka Senghor, Inc. and his priority is shifting societal narratives by creating content with deep social impact and high entertainment value.


12dec6:00 pmLiterature for Justice: Women Writing Beyond Bars6:00 pm CST

Photo credit: Daniel Driensky

Literature for Justice (LFJ) is a nationwide, book-based campaign that seeks to contextualize and humanize the experiences of incarcerated people in the United States.

The program is guided by the Literature for Justice committee, a cohort of well-known authors who are also experts, leaders, and advocates within the space of mass incarceration. This committee is tasked with the creation and selection of a reading list of five books annually to guide readers through this complex issue, with the hope that these texts will help shift public perception and understanding of mass incarceration through the power of storytelling. Collectively, the selected books tell a story about America’s carceral system and what it means for all Americans.

In addition to publicizing and promoting the LFJ reading list, the National Book Foundation will present several large-scale public events featuring authors and experts on mass incarceration, accompanied by digital assets like supplemental reading recommendations and further commentary from the LFJ committee.

Literature for Justice is made possible from the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in partnership with the Ford Foundation.

The Literature for Justice Committee is pleased to select five books that shine a necessary light on the American criminal justice system and provide crucial perspectives that help further the nation’s understanding of this massive apparatus that impacts the lives of citizens and non-citizens alike in the United States. In the inaugural year of this initiative, the selection committee chose a body of literature that critically and anecdotally explores our nation’s prisons and the crisis of mass incarceration. The committee felt it essential to select readings that would illuminate myriad elements of this issue—why the United States came to lock up more people than any other, how different groups in our society experience prison, and how this society could build new methods and systems to respond to the myriad social ills that land so many behind bars. Equally important to the committee was selecting readings from various genres, from historical nonfiction and memoir to fiction and poetry. Throughout the selection process the 2018 selectors were also deeply committed to foregrounding the work of formerly incarcerated authors.

—Literature for Justice Committee


Sergio De La Pava, Photo credit: Sharon DanielsSergio De La Pava is the author of three novels: A Naked Singularity, Personae, and Lost Empress. He is also a lifelong public defender and Legal Director at New York County Defender Services in Manhattan where he represents indigent criminal defendants and advocates for large-scale criminal justice reform. He has taught at Seton Hall Law School and lectured, spoken, and written on criminal justice issues for The Guardian, MoMA PS1, Harvard Law, Public Radio International, Sky News, New York Daily News, and other venues.
Photo credit: Sharon Daniels


Photo courtesy of James Forman, Jr.James Forman Jr. attended Yale Law School, and after he graduated, worked as a law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court. After clerking, he joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where for six years he represented juveniles and adults in felony and misdemeanor cases. Professor Forman loved being a public defender, but he quickly became frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for his clients. In 1997, along with David Domenici, he started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, an alternative school for dropouts and youth who had previously been arrested. The school recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. At Yale Law School, where he has taught since 2011, Professor Forman teaches Criminal Law and a course called Race, Class, and Punishment. He began teaching behind prison walls in 2016, and now regularly offers a seminar called Inside-Out Prison Exchange: Issues in Criminal Justice. The class brings together ten Yale Law students and ten incarcerated students who meet weekly to study side by side in the prison. Professor Forman’s first book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, was called “superb and shattering” in The New York Times, “eloquent” and “sobering” in the London Review of Books, and “moving, nuanced, and candid” in The New York Review of Books. The book was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times and multiple other outlets, longlisted for the National Book Award, and was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.
Photo courtesy of James Forman, Jr.

Photo credit: John RicardMitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years was praised by publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times of London. Jackson is the winner of a Whiting Award. His novel also won The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Jackson’s honors include fellowships from TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Bread Loaf Conference, and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and Tin House. Jackson is a Clinical Associate Professor of Writing in the Liberal Studies Program of New York University. A well-regarded speaker, Jackson has delivered lectures and keynote addresses at events and institutions including the annual TED Conference, the Yale Law School RebLaw Conference, the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Brown University, Cornell University, and Columbia University. Jackson is also an advocate for criminal justice reform and visits prisons and youth facilities in the United States and abroad.
Photo credit: John Ricard

Rachel Kushner, Photo credit: Gabby LaurentRachel Kushner is the author of the bestselling novel The Flamethrowers, which was a Finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and was chosen as one of the five best novels of the year by The New York Times. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the California Book Award, and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. Her new novel, published in 2018, is The Mars Room. Kushner’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. She has received fellowship awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is on the advisory board of Justice Now, which advocates against human rights abuses in California women’s prisons, and whose leadership is comprised of people currently incarcerated.
Photo credit: Gabby Laurent

Photo credit: Graham MacIndoeDr. Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan in the Department of Afro-American and African Studies and the Department of History. She is the Pulitzer Prize– and Bancroft Prize–winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy. Blood in the Water received six additional book awards, was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award, The Los Angeles Times Book Award, and The Cundill Book Prize, it received an honorable mention for the Silver Gavel Award, and landed on over 20 best of 2016 book lists including that of The New York Times. Thompson is also a public intellectual who writes regularly on the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Jacobin, The Atlantic, Salon, Dissent, NBC, New Labor Forum, The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post, as well as for top scholarly publications. Her award-winning scholarly articles include: “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in the Postwar United States” from The Journal of American History, and “Rethinking Working-Class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards” in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. On the policy front, Thompson served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the U.S. Thompson has also served on the boards of several policy organizations and has been appointed to the National Academy of Sciences standing committee, The Committee on Law and Justice. In 2018, Thompson was awarded a Bearing Witness Writing Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her next book is on the MOVE bombing of 1985.
Photo credit: Graham MacIndoe

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