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Six Prison Novels Worth Your Time

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to stories about prison and prison life. Shawshank Redemption is, hands down, my favorite flick. Plus, any documentary about prison life–usually on National Geographic or Discovery or some channel like that–is guaranteed to hold my attention for awhile.

But, for whatever reason, I haven’t read that many novels about prison. I realized this while reading Falconer, which in my estimation is a pretty authentic look at prison life, from the standpoint of a guy who murdered his brother.

What are some other well-received novels about prison?

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer: This is the true story of a guy named Gary Gilmore, who committed double murder then insisted on being executed (quickly) for his crimes. He battles against a slow-moving government that seems dedicated to keeping him alive long after he’s been sentenced to death.

Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean: Made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. This is an amazing, in-depth look at American’s capital punishment system, with all its flaws.

Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King: Everyone knows the movie. But the story originated as a novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, featured in a Stephen King short story collection from 1982. In my opinion, this is the preeminent prison story.

Birdman of Alcatraz by Thomas Gaddis: Another “trueish” story of a man sentenced to life at Alcatraz–in solitary confinement, no less. He becomes obsessed with birds that land outside his cell window. The book was made into a 1960s movie starring Burt Lancaster.

Papillon by Henri Charriere: An autobiography of Henri Charrier–who was sentenced to life in prison, in French Guiana, for a murder he didn’t commit. After a couple of failed escape attempts, Charrier was sent to Devil’s Island–a place which no one had ever escaped from. But Charrier did. This is his story. Sounds amazing.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A guy makes a negative comment about Stalin in a letter and is sentenced to 10 years in a Russian labor camp. This book is a day in his life.

Wow. A couple of these books make me want to temporarily stop the list and read them. Especially Papillon.

Your thoughts on any of these books? Or did I miss any others?

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23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Papillion was the first adult book I ever read. I was probably 11. Lots of it still sticks in my head which is saying something (I’m 43 now). When it was first published, I think it was given a lot more credibility, but somehow I recall it being taken down a peg or two with Charriere admitting to embellishing a bit. Still it’s cringeworthy.

    Also read A Day in the Life and if that doesn’t make you appreciate even our compromised society (USA) and legal system, nothing will.

    Shawshank is as stunning as you say and as everyone says. Last year I told my mom Stephen King wrote it and she didn’t believe me at first. Funny.

    I think I’ll see if I can pick up the Mailer…it sounds interesting. I vaguely remember Gilmore in the news. I think I was a kid at the time.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
    • Great thoughts. Now I really want to read Papillon.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
      • Christina Charitos #

        Papillon is one of my fave books, but keep in mind it’s mostly fiction or based on other convict escapes and some autobiography…but i loved it nonetheless ..- only a few times it bugs you that some things are so obviously fabricated it woudn’t even belong in a fiction.

        I HIGHLY recommend Unbroken that is my other favourite… Just Mercy is about a black lawyer who fights for the downtrodden on deathrow and it’s a massive eye opener about the US judicial system more than Dead man walking.

        HURRICANE i found to be a dry-ish read ( written by a lawyer) yet it’s an unforgettable story of Ruby Hurricane Carter and for that i love that book…he is quite a character !

        Reading Mother California now and it’s really good so far.

        The Hot House – Pete Early is a 3 star book but worth a read…

        Like

        June 3, 2017
  2. I have read them all except the Mailer. Some were assigned in college. All are tremendous reads. There is also a great blog on WordPress The Last Mile written by inmates in San Quentin who are in a special educational program. I think it is very well done and insightful. I guess I have always been interested in books on the subject because loss of freedom is something I cannot fathom.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  3. I remember reading A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in high school. I can say that is the only Russian novel I have read, but I don’t like that. I don’t really remember what happened, but I remember thinking it was deep and pretty important. I think I’ll have to put that on my TBR list.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  4. Looks like I need to get ahold of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I am an American English teacher living in Stalins’ country of Georgia. I am wondering just how available it will be here in Georgia. Books published in English are not easily found as it is…hmmm. I guess it is bookstore shopping time. Thanks for the idea. Just thinking of the conversation starter this could become for me. ;-D

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  5. Papillon was the first book that shook me….must find it again and reread it.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
    • It’s official. Papillon has to go on my “to-read” list for when I’m done with the 101 books.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
  6. I love The Shawshank Redemption, too. Great movie, and now I will have to look into the short story.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
    • I’ve never read it either! Always wanted to, but I just haven’t picked up a copy of that short story collection.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
  7. I recommend “The Royal Game” by Stefan Zweig. A novella only, so you will have read it in less than a day.

    Another prison book I have on my pile of books to read is “Shadow of a Smile” by Kachi Ozumba.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  8. Shem the Penman #

    Miracle of the Rose by Jean Genet is about as brutal and beautiful as prison fiction gets.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  9. This is a great list! I’m going to look into these books. I find I’m also drawn to prisons- movies and documentaries… I don’t know what it is, but there’s something intriguing there.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  10. Can’t say that I’m drawn to prison novels especially, but I enjoyed Vonnegut’s Jailbird, though I don’t recall how much time was spent discussing prison life in the novel. And speaking of Solzhenitsyn, I thought First Circle was also worthwhile, though only a small part of the novel dealt with life in the Soviet prison system. Though I have not read Escape from Colditz by Reid & Watton, it is supposed to be quite good. But is a novel about an escape from prison really a novel about life in prison? Seems rather the opposite! Another that comes to mind is The Man in the Iron Mask by Dumas. I also mention rather hesitantly Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, the second novel of which, The Tombs of Atuan deals with a young woman in a prison of sorts. Written for younger readers, they are still quiet enjoyable for us older dudes.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  11. I thoroughly enjoyed reading thru your recommendations and definitely agree your assessment of Shawshank being top-notch!

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  12. theelectriccane #

    I loved both Papillon and the Sequel. There are plenty of good books about prison life in Thailand, including one by a man who was part of the firing squad. Also have you read The Green Mile? Both the book and film were excellent.

    Like

    March 28, 2012
  13. Given my love of a good prison escape movie (and book, if I’d read any), I’m surprised I haven’t read (or seen) Papillon! That will go on the list. 🙂

    Like

    March 30, 2012
  14. I read a book called Thief by Maureen Gibbon, I wrote a little about it http://yearto30.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/books/
    Its about a woman who develops a pen pal relationship with a man in prision which is an interesting way to look at life behind bars. I also enjoy prison tales. Thank you for the recommendations!

    Like

    March 31, 2012
  15. Top book !! Recomendet !!

    Like

    March 31, 2012
  16. Graham Hallett #

    Midnight Express by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer was a very good read. The story of a young American man in prison in Turkey for drug smuggling. Loved the book and the movie.

    Like

    April 15, 2013
  17. I have recently read, “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.” It’s okay, but…. Anyone read, “The House of Whispering Hate?” I would love to read a free ebook, but can’t find the free download anywhere without leaving my credit card info. Any suggestions other than purchasing it?

    Like

    January 4, 2015
  18. Yes. I just got Papillion. And while I was looking for it, I came across another of my favorite movies. Cool Hand Luke. I didn’t even know it was a book.
    Can’t wait to read both of them. I just finished reading “Marching Powder “, soon to be a Brad Pitt movie.

    Like

    October 15, 2016

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