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Top 10 Prison Books | Top Ten Prison Novels

Updated on August 15, 2014

Ten Best Prison Books

This is a lens about ten prison books. It is very difficult to establish a list of Top 10 Prison Books. I have included books on incarceration, death row, confinement in a mental institution (which is not much different from prison), one about a pre-commitment story and even a Kafkaian story about trials and life behind bars.

As I have written about a few well known prison stories in Top 10 Prison Movies, I have preferred not to include them again here but to present a few very good books although less popular.

I hope you enjoy this lens.

Please also visit Top 10 Prison Movies

Top Ten Prison Books | One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Top 10 Prison Books | A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Imprisoned for eight years in a labor camp in Central Asia under Stalin, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a good and resourceful little man, is a zek, a prisoner in the Soviet administrative language. Harassed by the guards and by cold and hunger, he adapts to survive with dignity in an inhuman universe. With A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn leads us into the daily life of one victim among many of the system of Soviet concentration camps. Through that sole day, it is the whole horror of that world "outside life" that marks us, but also and especially the prisoner's irresistible urge to resist.

Top 10 Prison Stories | Faces in the Water

Ten Best Prison Books | Faces in Water

This is not a book about incarceration in prison but in a psychiatric institution. I decided to include it in my list of Top 10 Prison Stories because confinement in mental hospitals is still confinement, and because of the quality of the work.

Faces in Water is a novel as vast, deep and unexpected as madness itself. It describes confinement in mental hospitals but also the fear of "normal” people of "crazy" people and the paths that this fear takes to punish and banish those who rebel and who defend themselves against the cruel reality of this world by recreating their own universe.

Top 10 Prison Books | The Hot House

Ten Best Prison Stories | The Hot House

With the cooperation of the Bureau of Prisons, Earley ( Family of Spies ) spent much time from mid-1987 to mid-1989 at Leavenworth, a maximum-security institution whose nickname, the Hot House, derives from its lack of air conditioning despite the searing Kansas summers. Interviewing the warden, the guards from captains on down and the convicts, many of whom are imprisoned for shocking crimes, the author takes readers into the mind of the recidivist criminal to show an egoistic, violent nature locked into a code of behavior with elements of machismo, hyper-sensitivity to slights and the conviction that informing is the greatest crime of all. There is also hatred of guards, who hate back, all this played out against a backdrop of racism, sexual exploitation, constant tension and sometimes gratuitous cruelty by the staff and the bureau toward the inmates. A remarkable book. (Publishers Weekly)

Top Ten Prison Books | A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook

10 Best Prison Stories | A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook

Erwin James (a pseudonym) is serving life imprisonment for a double murder since the mid 80s. In a series of articles for the Guardian, Erwin James introduces us to the reality of life in jail in Britain. He describes the cruelty, the struggle to keep one's mind sane, and the difficulty of preparing oneself to face freedom again.

The reality is told through the stories of a number of inmates : Rinty, the big Dundonian and enthusiastic fan of "Antiques Roadshow"; Cody, the elderly former sergeant who still protests his innocence after 24 years; and Felix the Gambler -- serial schemer and sometime Buddhist.

Ten Best Prison Books | Life in Prison

Top 10 Prison Books | Life in Prison

Stanley Williams is the co-founder of the Crips gang in California. In Life in Prison he relates the time he spent on the death row. Life in Prison is a thought-provoking book. While recounting life in jail, he continually (after the end of each chapter) asks readers to compare their own difficulties to those of a death-row prisoner.

Top 10 Prison Books | Darkness at Noon

Ten Best Prison Works | Darkness at Noon

Written between 1938 and 1940 and published in France in 1945, Darkness at Noon is one of the great "classics" of the twentieth century, and a worldwide bestseller. Inspired by the great Moscow trials, the novelist imagines the itinerary of a Communist leader, Rubashov, imprisoned and tried after being himself a "purifier". Through this theme, the writer invites us to a real trial of dictatorships and of a totalitarian system in which man is nothing, a zero with regards to the community, while humanism sees in him the infinite.

Darkness at Noon is one of best works on incarceration.

Top Ten Prison Books | Invitation to a Beheading

Ten Best Prison Stories | Invitation to a Beheading

Cincinnatus C. .., sentenced to death, was detained in an extraordinary prison extraordinary. Bothered by strange visitors who come to torment him in his cell, each in its own way, and consumed by the fear of the punishment the date of which he ignores, the inmate continues to mull over his case: "He is not like the others: he is impervious to the rays of others." Following a final, the time of his execution arrives. But before the executioner had completed his fatal act, Cincinnatus stands up, walks down the steps of the scaffold and joins the side of people who are like him.

Top 10 Prison Books | The 25th Hour

10 Best Prison Stories | The 25th Hour

It is the last night of freedom of Monty, a drug dealer, before he serves a prison sentence of seven years in the penitentiary of Otisville. Once one of the kings of Manhattan, he is preparing to say goodbye to a pompous life which had moved him far from him family.

On this occasion, an evening is organized in a nightclub held by Uncle Blue, a Russian mafiosi. All those close to Monty are present: his father, with whom he will try to reconnect, his two old buddies Jakob and Slattery and, naturally, his girlfriend... Monty think that it was she who denounced him to the federal agents. But the clock is ticking and he must make choices.

We are not yet in jail in this book, but the shadow of jail is omnipresent.

Ten Best Prison Stories | The Executioner's Song

Ten Best Prison Books | The Executioner's song

Gary Gilmore comes from a family of Mormons, and at thirty-five he has spent more time in prison that in the wild. In July 1976, while on bail, he attacks a gas station and a motel for a few dollars in the till. Each time he kills a man. Arrested, he was tried and sentenced to the death. The uniqueness of the Gilmore: He refuses any mercy. After his trial, he could have appealed and the sentence would have easily been commuted to life imprisonment but Gilmore refuses. Worse, he fights for his execution, which was finally held January 17, 1977at the penitentiary of Utah.

Top 10 Prison Books | Midnight Express

Ten Best Prison Stories | Midnight Express

For Billy Hayes, 1970 was a horrifying year. It was the year when he tried to smuggle 4lbs of hashish from Istanbul back to his home in America. It was the year when he was arrested at Istanbul airport, tried, and sentenced to 30 in a Turkish jail. For five years he suffered the filth, brutality and degradation of imprisonment in an environment of hellish squalor, while his family fought in vain to secure his release. Finally in desperation, he made a daring escape bid and incredibly the bid succeeded. This is the astounding true story, told in Billy Hayes's own words, of those five years of living hell and of the harrowing ordeal of his time on the run. Vivid and realistic without being morbid, it is a classic story of survival and human endurance, told with humor, intelligence and total honesty. (Amazon product description.)

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    • profile image

      Damian 2 years ago

      I like stories

    • profile image

      Bartukas 4 years ago

      Bit thanks for this lens thank you

    • uneasywriter lm profile image

      uneasywriter lm 4 years ago

      Great reviews, Midnight Express is on my must read list.

    • Eric Mayo profile image

      Eric Mayo 4 years ago

      Where is "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.?

    • profile image

      Joseph_Vandyke 5 years ago

      Good selection. The 25th Hour is one of my favorites.

    • pavlovswriter lm profile image

      pavlovswriter lm 5 years ago

      I agree with jksterling, Papillon is one of the best prison stories. For a real prison story and how to survive prison : https://hubpages.com/politics/survive_prison : Cheers and thanks for the list.

    • wrapitup4me profile image

      wrapitup4me 5 years ago

      I like reading true stories.

    • JK Sterling profile image

      Jim Sterling 5 years ago from Franklin, Tennessee

      Papillion is my favorite. Thanks for a great lens.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 5 years ago

      I appreciate this article, and have read most of the books on your list. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an incredible portrayal of the evils of that system. Another good one--sadly written in more recent days--is Grey is the Color of Hope, by Irina Ratushinskaya.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich showed just how brutal the Soviet gulag system was. That was a difficult book for me to read. Great lens. I'm bookmarking it so I can visit again. All the best.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      I haven't read any of these but you have done some excellent reviews...worthy of a blessing...

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      TravelingRae 6 years ago

      I've read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a dozen times. Great list!

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      mockingbird999 6 years ago

      The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King is a great prison book.

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 6 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I've never read any of the books on your list. Some of them look interesting. Maybe I will give them a try. I like Dead Man Walking, Black is the New Orange, Bird Man of Alcatraz and Shoeshank Redemption.