Reginald Dwayne Betts, the celebrated poet and founder of Freedom Reads, recently described books as a form of beauty in which freedom can be found. In that spirit, our team offers this list of books that are pushing us to think differently about the world we want. This is not a best-of or a holiday gift guide. These are simply works that move us, offered in the hope that they will move you, too.
When Inquest launched last year, one of our first essays was about an in-progress book. Another early reflection, from a former public defender, reviewed a book on the role of plea bargaining in fueling mass incarceration. From the publication’s earliest days, we engaged with the works of formerly incarcerated authors and others for whom books have been transformative. Since day one, our homepage has featured a bookshelf with titles that have helped us think and grow. We are fortunate to be in a moment when each week seems to bring new publications that help us better understand how the carceral state was built, how it can be dismantled, and how we can collectively imagine a world without it.
We hope that the books on this list inform, inspire, and empower you.
My mother, who constantly supplied me with resources, signed me up for The Fire Inside newsletter (produced by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners) shortly after I went to prison. Though the political landscape of Georgia is vastly different from California, I gleaned immeasurable power from reading about CCWP’s fearless, steady activism. Abolition Feminisms includes narratives of struggle reflecting on the first twenty-five years of CCWP’s work. These stories are a survival guide that will no doubt fuel brainstorms of peaceful resistance and resolution. And, as long as slavery persists, this threaded practice of caring collectively—and talking about the ways we can all (instinctively, really) do it—are timeless. Abolition Feminisms belongs in the hands of every captured woman and trans person in America. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Luci Harrell, outreach coordinator and new media consultant
Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us opens with a scene from the show Cops in which Las Vegas police select two Black women at random and accuse them of solicitation. It’s a chilling anecdote to illustrate the staggering power that sexual policing gives to law enforcement. But Fischer’s book is also full of inspiring examples of how feminist activists have fought back against this racist, sexist regime. As an adopted Bostonian, I was especially interested to read about the extraordinary coalition building that took place here in the late 1970s in response to violence against Black women, mainly led by the Combahee River Collective and aided by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and the Wages for Housework movement. It’s a powerful reminder that we are strongest when we work together. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Adam McGee, managing editor
No scholar working today has done more to expand my thinking about prisons and punishment than Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whose decades of research are wonderfully presented in a new collection, Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation. While my own feelings about abolition have changed with time, I have long admired Gilmore’s careful analysis of the political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration. She raises difficult questions about how the United States became so habituated to cruelty, and about how we might work together to build safe communities. No matter one’s political convictions (or thoughts on abolition), there is so much in Gilmore’s writing to appreciate, and few better places to start engaging with it than this book. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Daniel Fernandez, editor
Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie’s No More Police: A Case for Abolition is equal parts imaginative and practical. It highlights the many ways policing breaks its promise to keep us safe, and it uplifts examples of communities nationwide who are already practicing the sort of collective care which could take the place of police. The book also pushes readers to reimagine how they conceptualize safety and the world they’d like to live in. Kaba and Ritchie treat questions, critiques, and doubts about abolition with the care and respect they deserve. It’s a book equally perfect for the skeptics, the curious, and the committed abolitionists in your life. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Julia Lorentsen, assistant editor
By their very nature, surveillance systems have a slippery quality that helps them evade our scrutiny: they’re too decentralized to neatly identify who’s responsible for them, and so ingrained in our routines that it’s challenging to observe their full scope. Ana Muñiz’s Borderland Circuitry cuts through these obstacles by using the image of the border to shed light on what’s happening hundreds of miles away from the U.S.–Mexico border. She connects the surveillance techniques that greet migrants to the data mining and racial profiling tactics that are taking place in U.S. cities, all of which work in tandem to code their targets for harsher punishments, deportation, and even threats abroad. And she traces how the constant communication between law enforcement agencies—even about seemingly anodyne interactions—builds on itself and leaves people and communities ripe for abuse. “This is how bias becomes hard data and how racism becomes law,” as Muñiz writes in a preview of her book for Inquest.
—Daniel Nichanian, contributing editor
In the opening pages of The Oxford History of the Prison, Norval Morris and David J. Rothman write that it is “difficult to conceive of a moment when prisons were not at the core” of the U.S. penal system. But in her powerful new history This is My Jail, Melanie D. Newport focuses our attention on a far more ubiquitous and central institution of the carceral state: the local jails that dot the landscape, incarcerating upward of 10 million people every year. Using Chicago’s Cook County jail as her point of entry, Newport details how sheriffs and other elected officials have leveraged these fundamentally local institutions to embed mass incarceration—and its attendant racial oppression—into the political economy of virtually every community in the country. Newport’s thoughtful history highlights not only the massive harms imposed at the penal system’s front door, but also the urgency of treating local jails as sites of contestation in the ongoing effort to end mass incarceration. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Andrew Manuel Crespo, founding editor
In Torn Apart, Dorothy Roberts again invites readers to take part in abolishing systems of coercion, control, and policing. In this new book, Roberts returns to the subject of the “benevolent terror” of family policing and its racialized harm. With care and compassion, Roberts presents heart-wrenching stories of separated families. Torn Apart builds on her 2001 book Shattered Bonds, also about the child welfare system, to trace the last twenty years of the system’s expansion, considering its collusion with the prison–industrial complex and how it reinforces the hierarchies of racial capitalism. It is an accessible and devastating book that insists on being read, and a powerful addition to the canon of abolitionist literature. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Mason Favro, operations associate
Driving into the town I grew up in, you were welcomed by a placard announcing it as the “Heart of the Billion Dollar Coal Field.” The high school team is the Miners, and school was closed every year so we could all attend the King Coal Festival. In other words, Judah Schept’s Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia could not have found a more excited audience. But the thing is, this book is one that everyone should read. It is meticulous and thoughtful, and it pushes one to consider the deep intersections of racial capitalism, environmental depletion, and the growth of the carceral state—in Appalachia and beyond. It peels back layers on the project of mass incarceration; for those wishing to better understand that project in order to dismantle it, this book is a must-read. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Premal Dharia, founding editor
People very close to me have experienced the pain of immigration detention and deportation, and their stories—of resolve and resistance on the inside—are largely unknown. Kristina Shull’s Detention Empire: Reagan’s War on Immigrants and the Seeds of Resistance captures the spirit of their stories, as well as those of countless others. It is a remarkable testament—a “palimpsest,” as she calls it—to the millions our nation’s immigration apparatus has forcibly, tragically disappeared. And it reminds me of those who, to this day, continue to link arms with their families and with advocates to fight for their freedom, reunification, and an end to immigration imprisonment. [For our coverage, read here.]
—Cristian Farias, senior editor
Image: Nigar Azizli/Unsplash