30 Days in the Hole: The Real Prison Books

I have a love/hate relationship with lists. I love making them and I love reading them. But I hate the omissions.

I’ve responded to some recent lists on Twitter but when I read this list of the Top Ten Books About Incarceration I thought that a fuller response was warranted simply because it might be a vehicle by which to recommend some great books.

The list itself allows for a liberal interpretation of the word ‘incarceration’. I have no issue with that because I myself have taken liberties with definitions in the past and encourage others to do so.

I was struck by the lack of works that dealt with ‘incarceration’ in its most literal sense – being in prison.

One of the all time great prison novels – nah strike that – THE all time great prison novel is a book called Stone City by Mitchell Smith. This book is not as well known as it should be and its absence on the list is felt.

There is a particular vein of fiction that runs through American letters (though I’m specifically restricting myself to the 20th century and I’m not aware if the same strain exists in UK writing for example) that is the most glaring omission. That it wasn’t covered renders the list at best as inconsequential and at worst irrelevant.

Simply put books – both fiction and non-fiction – that were by convict writers. Over the last century men, who committed serious acts of crime and did serious time, put themselves on the page one letter at a time. The writing can be eloquent but is more often crude and serviceable but what’s being said is always thoughtful. The usage of language is not why they are though, its because of the sheer force of the narrative. The common denominator of these books is their stark honesty.

These are books that shank you and leave you for dead.

These shotgun blasts from the dark heart of the American penal system should not be forgotten. Because of the variety of meanings of the word incarceration I’m not suggesting that the whole list should have been comprised of these books but one of them should have been selected to represent the rest.

So I’ll pivot off of the original article in order to, hopefully, point you to some titles that you may not have read before. Let me also add up front that there aren’t any women on this list. I don’t yet know of the great woman’s prison books but if you do then please let me know in the comments.

At first I thought I would write about each book but I decided to focus on the men and the crimes that they committed. These men and their acts are so intertwined with the books they wrote that to not talk about it wouldn’t be fair. What I said above about these books is true — just remember that.


Jack Henry Abbott’s mother was a prostitute and his father was a GI. At 16 he went to reform school. At age 21 while doing time for forgery he stabbed an inmate to death. 16 years later, in 1981 he was paroled. Six weeks after being released he fatally stabbed another man. He committed suicide in jail in 2002. Norman Mailer was instrumental in Abbott’s parole. That same year Abbott’s book, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison, was released.

“How would you like to be forced all the days of your life to sit beside a stinking, stupid wino every morning at breakfast? Or for some loud fool in his infinite ignorance to be at any moment to say (slur) “Gimme a cigarette man!” And I just look into his sleazy eyes and want to kill his ass there in front of God and everyone.

…Imagine a thousand more such daily intrusions in your life, every hour and minute of every day, and you can grasp the source of paranoia, this anger that could consume me at any moment if I lost control.”

Iceberg Slim was not just a pimp. He is THE pimp. In fact he is the archetype for everything pimp related in the second half of the 20th century. In 1947 he escaped from jail, was caught 13 years later and served out the remainder of his sentence in solitary confinement. The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim by Iceberg Slim was released in 1971.

“Again for the thousandth time I see and hear the likeable little black con in the steel box next to mine, my only buddy, suddenly chanting freaky lyrics of a crazy frightening song about how God is double-crossing cocksucker, and how he is going to sodomize and murder his crippled bitch mama.”

Edward Bunker spent the first 43 years of his life in and out of state run institutions before turning his life around becoming a writer and an actor (If you have seen the movie Reservoir Dogs then you know who he is). His first novel, No Beast So Fierce, was written while in jail and was published in 1973. Animal Factory, which deals more directly with prison life, was released in 1977.

Clarence Cooper Jr. was a lifelong drug addict. While serving time in 1966 he wrote The Farm, which was published in 1977.

Nathan Heard was serving seven years for armed robbery when he decided that he could do a better job writing then the book he’d just read. So he did. He wrote the novel Howard Street while in prison and it was published in 1968. His book House of Slammers dealt directly with the prison system and was published in 1983.

In 1928 nineteen year old Chester Himes was chained upside down and beaten by police until he confessed to an armed robbery. His sentenced was for twenty to twenty-five years. He was paroled in 1936 and is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His prison novel, Cast the First Stone was published in 1952 and the original version, under the new title Yesterday Will Make You Cry, was published in 1998.

In 1946 Malcolm X was sentenced to 8 to 10 years for various crimes. We all know who the man is so we don’t need much recount of his life. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which deals in part with his time in prison, was released in 1965.

In 1963 Tommy Trantino was convicted in the barroom shooting death of two police officers. He would serve 39 years. In 1974 he published a book of prose, poetry and art called Lock the Lock. It is long out of print but Murder Slim press currently has a chapbook available called The Angel which was the central part of Lock the Lock and tells of his arrest and conviction.

So how about it? What prison books did I miss? Have you read any of these? If so what did you think?

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

5 Replies to “30 Days in the Hole: The Real Prison Books”

  1. If the Nerd can get on his english major high horse a second, let me say that FALCONER by JOHN CHEEVER is surprisingly good shit. Been meaning to take a swing at STONE CITY.

  2. SOUL ON ICE by Eldridge Cleaver was the most startling book I ever read. I was about 19 or 20, thought my life was shit, and then found out I was living in a little white paradise. Cleaver’s story of being black and in prison was gut pulling.

    Iceberb Slim’s first book, PIMP, is a powerful look into that world, too.

  3. Soul on Ice is a great one and one that I knew immediately that I had forgotten after I posted this. I think every white teen should read it. It certainly had a similar effect on me as it did you.

    I’m still stunned that this TYPE of book wasn’t included on that original list.

  4. I wrote about Pimp and Iceberg Slim in an article I did over at BSC years ago called Black Crime Fiction: An Introduction.

  5. I’d add to your excellent list the following:
    Jarvis Masters – Finding Freedom. A series of personal essays and parables Masters’ growing interest in Buddhism while serving life without parole on San Quentin’s Death Row (he’s still there). Masters early life follows a familiar path. Parents lost to addiction, youth crime, enters SQ age 19, gets involved in a prison gang and is convicted for his part in the murder of a prison guard. Barely literate and raging, Masters somehow becomes interested in Buddhism, and the book shows him accepting responsibility for his actions and seeking to become a peace activist in prison. Not least because it got written at all, Finding Freedom is an extraordinary book, and a corrective to the hyper masculine posturing that characterizes a great deal of prison writing.
    I wrote my doctoral thesis on American prison writing and would also recommend Malcolm Braly’s classic San Quentin novel On the Yard (1967). Braly was an unsuccessful small-time burglar who spent 17 of his first 40 years in prison, and who died in a car crash in 1980 at the age of 54.
    Also check out Committing Journalism: The prison writings of Red Hog, by Dannie Martin (1993), and the daddy of them all, Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (1926).