Justice Reform 101: What to Read, Watch, and Listen To

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jul 11, 2023

What to read:

All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence by Emily L. Thuma

This book describes women activists who fought gender violence and incarceration inside and outside of prisons. It traces the origins of anti-carceral feminism at the intersections of racial and economic justice.

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

In 2014, investigative journalist Shane Bauer was hired to work at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. He wrote an exposé for Mother Jones and this book expands on his experience, including the history of for-profit prisons in the United States and their roots in slavery.

Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon

This book reports on the unchecked power of the prosecutor as a driving force in the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, as well as reform-minded prosecutors who are taking strides toward justice.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Vera Board Trustee Khalil Gibran Muhammad offers a biography of the idea of Black criminality, revealing the influence this pernicious myth has had on our society.

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Since 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased more than 450 percent, with California leading the way in this explosion. This book examines how political and economic forces produced the prison boom.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

This book examines why many Black leaders— facing rising murder rates and open-air drug markets—supported the war on crime and its associated long prison sentences and aggressive police tactics. And how these policies ended up hurting Black communities.

Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

This book examines the emergence of mass immigrant imprisonment in the mid-1980s and how federal and state governments have increasingly tapped their powers to incarcerate people accused of violating immigration laws.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Civil rights attorney and activist Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration has taken the place of legal discrimination as a tool of controlling Black people and denying their rights. She argues, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

No Justice in the Shadows: How America Criminalizes Immigrants by Alina Das

This book details the history of immigration policy to explain how the United States constructed the idea of the “criminal alien” and built a deportation machine that banishes people convicted of drug or traffic offenses from their homes.

Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope by Albert Woodfox

A powerful memoir by a man who was sentenced to life in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison for a crime he did not commit. He speaks of how he survived the ordeal and the dire need for reform in the United States criminal legal system.

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

In this book of poems, Javier Zamora narrates the experience of migrating at the age of nine from El Salvador to the United States to be reunited with his parents. He made the journey alone, and describes this experience further in his memoir, Solito.

What to watch:


Ava DuVernay’s documentary highlights the fact that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, except for as punishment for crime. The film explores ways this loophole has facilitated the mass criminalization of Black people and the prison boom.

College Behind Bars

This PBS series tells the story of a small group of incarcerated people struggling to earn college degrees and improve their lives in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States—the Bard Prison Initiative.

Just Mercy

A dramatization of the true story of Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who won the freedom of Walter McMillian, who was on death row in Alabama for a murder he did not commit.

The Night Of

This dramatic miniseries illustrates the workings of New York City’s criminal legal system through the story of a young Pakistani American man who is accused of murder.

When They See Us

This drama is based on the true story of the Central Park Five, five teens from Harlem who were wrongfully accused and convicted of a brutal attack on a jogger in Central Park. They were exonerated in 2014.

The Zo

“The Zo,” prison jargon for The Twilight Zone, is a series of videos based on a huge archive of letters compiled by the American Prison Writing Archive. It was inspired by a senior thesis by Patrick Doolittle called “‘The Zo’: Disorientation and Retaliatory Disorientation in American Prisons.”

What to listen to:

Justice in America

Each episode of this podcast covers a different criminal justice issue, from schools in prison to the death penalty to junk forensic science.

Decarceration Nation

Joshua B. Hoe’s podcast discusses how to radically re-imagine the U.S. criminal legal system and the broad scope of the changes needed to deliver justice.

Ear Hustle

This podcast illuminates the daily realities of life inside prison, as told by those living it. It also offers stories from people who are formerly incarcerated.

CoreCivic: Unlocking the Truth (Calling Bullshit Podcast)

This podcast discusses CoreCivic, the largest private prison company in the world. It was created during the war on crime and war on drugs, when the United States didn’t have enough prisons to hold the people who were being sentenced to incarceration. It has grown into a business worth 1.8 billion in revenue.

Money Bail: Freedom for Sale

A podcast about how the money bail system in the United States has crushed the poor and pressures potentially innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit.

Download this guide.