Time Behind Bars: A Prison-Based Reading List

This post originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

orange is the new black, the enchanted, alphabet, running the books

After making its debut on Netflix last year, Orange Is the New Black this year was nominated for 12 Emmys (it won three) and renewed for two more seasons. It's safe to say we're hooked on this captivating glimpse of life in prison, and after binge-watching the first season, many viewers picked up Piper Kerman's memoir, on which the series is based.

There's no reason to stop with Kerman, though. Avi Steinberg never expected to work in the penal system, but when the need for health insurance sent him job hunting, he found himself working in a prison in Boston. His memoir, Running the Books, catalogues his time at the prison's library counter, detailing the inmates with whom he worked and the myriad ways they used the library to learn, connect with the outside world and even break the rules.

Rene Denfeld works as a death-row investigator, a professional experience that shapes her stunning, imaginative novel, The Enchanted (review). The book tells the story of a group of death-row inmates by focusing on the prison as a whole, rather than on their individual crimes. With just a touch of the fantastical, Denfeld masterfully brings to light the despair that lurks in one of the darkest places in our society.

Kathy Page's novel Alphabet (review) centers on one inmate, Simon Austen, in prison for murdering his girlfriend. Austen wears his history quite literally on his skin, as he tattoos onto his body all the names and words he has been called: "dumb," "waste of space," "threat to women." As Alphabet tracks his incarceration over many years, what emerges from beneath his crude exterior is not the cold-blooded killer one might expect, but a surprisingly sympathetic character caught in a web of startlingly cruel prison politics.

Orange is the New Black | Piper Kiernan | Spiegel & Grau | Trade Paperback | March 2011 | 352 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

The Enchanted | Rene Denfeld | HarperTorch | Hardcover | March 2014 | 237 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Running the Books | Avi Steinberg | Nan A. Talese | Hardcover | October 2010 | 416 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Alphabet | Kathy Page | Biblioasis | Trade Paper | October 2014 | 304 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you


  1. These all sound fascinating. Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. Emily@As the Crowe FliesJanuary 16, 2015 at 8:34 PM

    What an interesting collection of books. Thanks for making suggestions for those of us who have read OITNB, or in my case, The Enchanted, and looking for new things. I wonder what I would find in the cross section of my reading lately, and unfortunately it's looking like war & genocide: Serbs vs Croats in a book I read last week, Turks vs Armenians in a book I finished last night. Not necessarily what I want to recommend wholesale to readers!

  3. How fun! I love the Mary Russell series and I'll have to check this one out!


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