Understanding Mass Incarceration, A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

August 2018

Reading List


We all know that orange is the new black and mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, but how much do we actually know about the structure, goals, and impact of our criminal justice system? Understanding Mass Incarceration offers the first comprehensive overview of the incarceration apparatus put in place by the world’s largest jailer: the United States. Drawing on a growing body of academic and professional work, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes in plain English the many competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice-to-justice reinvestment. In a lively and accessible style, author James Kilgore illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinos, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities. Both field guide and primer, Understanding Mass Incarceration will be an essential resource for those engaged in criminal justice activism as well as those new to the subject. (The New Press, September 2015)



“In the inaugural year of the Literature for Justice program, the committee felt it essential that readers were given an understanding of mass incarceration’s origin story—how it is that the United States came to imprison more people than any other country in the world—as well as some thoughts on how we might imagine a more humane and equitable justice system in the future. In ways powerful and accessible James Kilgore’s Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time offers just this sort of historical background while also helping us all to appreciate the vast reach and destructive impact of today’s carceral apparatus and why we should indeed try to create a different justice future. Kilgore, a formerly incarcerated educator himself, narrows the lens on the complexities of mass incarceration, offering readers history, critique, and a blueprint for moving forward which makes this book an essential selection to include in the launch of this initiative.” — Dr. Heather Ann Thompson


James Kilgore lived as a fugitive in South Africa from 1991 to 2002 under the name John Pape.  He was an educator, researcher and activist. In 2002, authorities extradited him to the United States where he served six and a half years in prison for political offenses committed in the 1970s. The idea for Freedom Never Rests emerged from his observation that as a prisoner in the U.S. he enjoyed unlimited access to free water, something which remained out of the reach for so many people in South Africa.

Kilgore currently lives in the U.S. where he a social justice activist and writes widely on issues pertaining to mass incarceration.  He is also a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois.  He authored two other novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, described by the Natal Witness as one of the “three best reads” of 2009, and Prudence Couldn’t Swim (PM Press, 2012).