A Beginner's Guide to How the U.S. Prison System Actually Works

If you’re fairly new to this topic, it can feel overwhelming—so here are some podcasts, books, and documentaries to start with.
raised fist surrounded by covers of prison abolition books and podcasts
Collage by Koji Yamamoto | Images from Shutterstock, Getty, Beyond Prisons, Seven Stories Press, New Press, Netflix, and Hulu
Because We Can is an ongoing series about making politics a practice, even when there isn’t a national election looming.

Approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population is located in the United States, making the country the world leader in locking up its own people. Activists currently argue that mass incarceration not only perpetuates inequalities, but that the underpinnings of the prison system are racist, capitalist, sexist, colonialist, ableist, and transphobic. From the school-to-prison pipeline to the privatization of prisons, mass incarceration remains inherently intertwined with everyday facets of American life. 


The problems underpinning mass incarceration are nothing new, but nonetheless are at the root of a revitalized movement calling for the end of policing and prisons. Some activists call for complete abolition, and others aim for defunding the police and eliminating private prisons. These causes have gained significant steam since the anti-police brutality protests of last summer. 

Maybe you’ve seen facts like how Black people are incarcerated in state prisons five times the rate of white people and that the number of life sentences has increased in the past three decades, or heard activists arguing that prisons actually do not make communities any safer, and are far better at extracting labor than keeping any kind of order. Maybe you feel lost about how things got this way and how to help. 

If you’re fairly new to this topic, it can feel overwhelming getting a full grasp at the myriad ways mass incarceration harms our communities. Here are several books, podcasts, and documentaries on mass incarceration to help you get started, as well as some organizations to follow.



Beyond Prisons
Co-hosts Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein get to the heart of issues hurting incarcerated people the most. A great episode to start with—especially since there’s not a ton of  easily accessible literature on electronic monitoring specifically—is “Challenging E-Carceration feat. James Kilgore.”

How One Inmate Changed The Prison System From The Inside,” Code Switch
In this episode of NPR’s Code Switch, investigative reporter Michael Shapiro digs up the history of activist Martin Sostre, who was incarcerated several times and was one of the first prisoners to challenge prison conditions successfully in court.

Justice in America
Hosted by journalist Josie Duffy Rice, Justice in America tackles a new criminal justice issue every week, explaining how the system works and who it affects. It hasn’t been updated since last April, but the episodes are still relevant; some highlights include “Criminalizing Mothers” and “Restorative Justice: What Justice Could Look Like.”


Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
In this short book (about 130 pages!), renowned professor and activist Angela Davis explores why the prison system is so ingrained in our culture and how exploitive it has become. She delineates why the prison system is no longer feasible and imagines what decarceration would look like in practice. 

Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler
According to former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, the U.S. prison system is working just as intended. In his book, Butler argues that even though white men are the ones who commit the majority of violent crimes, police, prosecutors, and judges will always look to the Black man as a scapegoat. 


Fourth City: Essays from Prison in America edited by Doran Larson
With more than 70 essays written by incarcerated Americans, Fourth City chronicles the day-to-day experience of what it’s like living inside and how prisons fail to achieve their goal of rehabilitation. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander
Published in 2010, The New Jim Crow has been considered the seminal work on mass incarceration. Civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander explores the unique cruelty of the prison system and how it has been used to exert control over millions of Americans, specifically Black and Hispanic men. She ultimately ties the system of modern mass incarceration to the Jim Crow laws of the South, which were designed to criminalize and subjugate Black people after the Civil War.

From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post Civil Rights America by Patrisia Macías-Rojas
Remember those viral photos of kids in cages? Mass incarceration even extends to immigration policy. Patrisia Macias-Rojas, a sociology and Latin American studies professor, makes the case for why cross-movement work is necessary: because of the influential nature of the criminal justice system, immigration enforcement has become much more punitive in the past few decades.


Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality by Luana Ross
Native Americans face one of the highest rates of incarceration. In this study, Luana Ross, an Indigenous sociologist, tackles the criminalization of Native American women and how it stems from a larger history rooted in colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. That violence continues in the prison system, where race continues to play a significant factor in the experience incarcerated women have.

Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock
By unpacking the harmful archetypes that have been weaponized against the LGBT community, the authors explore how queer expression has been criminalized, further exacerbating existing racial and gender inequalities. 

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa
Both liberals and conservatives have blood on their hands, according to political scientist Naomi Murakawa. Her primary argument is that the current prison system wasn’t forged during the late 1960s—which was defined by “tough on crime” policies—but actually during the civil rights liberalism era following World War II. The liberal intention to curb crime had lost the plot, Murakawa says, but support continues, regardless of the prison system’s cyclical violence, because “tough on crime” messaging goes hand in hand with racism and capitalism.


The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline, and Racialized Double Standards by Nancy A. Heitzeg
For many Black, brown, and Indigenous kids, police presence in schools does not make them feel safer mainly because it’s a surefire way to be sent down the school-to-prison pipeline. Dr. Nancy A. Heitzeg provides a deep look into how this phenomenon developed, how it has changed, and how racism plays into who gets a warning and who is disciplined.

We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America by Robert T Chase
Using 30 years worth of legal documents from prisoners, historian Robert T Chase explores how the pivot away from prison plantations to penitentiary cells in the South worsened labor conditions and increased power inequality for prisoners. We Are Not Slaves chronicles the prisoner-led movements that led to legal victories against the new reforms, but also how white supremacists got in the way.


In this documentary aptly named after the 13th Amendment—which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitutde (except as punishment for a crime)—director Ava DuVernay intricately weaves the histories of disenfranchisement and criminalization together to show how mass incarceration directly is connected to slavery. 

Crime + Punishment 
Once upon a time, members of the New York Police Department were required to fill arrest quotas, which were proven to disproportionately target Black and brown people. Even though the policy ended in 2010, quota-based policing persisted. Director Steven Maing documents the story of 12 officers, who speak up about the punishment top brass gave when they refused to continue meeting quotas after the practice was banned. 


“Prison State,” Frontline 
Prison State
follows how Kentucky tries to stop its cycle of mass incarceration and follows four individuals intertwined in that cycle. (And, good news: PBS’ Frontline is free to watch.) 

Organizations, Initiatives, and Other Resources

8 to Abolition
Not an organization, but a great primer on ways we can start transforming our justice system now. 

An Indigenous Abolitionist Study Guide
It’s important to decolonize your perspective as much as possible. The Yellowhead Institute has crafted a wonderful syllabus with this goal in mind. 

Critical Resistance
Co-founded by Angela Y. Davis, Critical Resistance has been doing abolition work for decades. Follow Critical Resistance on Twitter here.

Equal Justice Initiative
EJI is a non-profit organization that produces reports and educational materials regarding mass incarceration. You can subscribe to EJI’s newsletter here.

Transform Harm
Created by abolition activist Mariame Kaba, Transform Harm is a resource hub for those looking to understand transformative justice.

Your local bail fund
If someone is facing trial, they may have a cash bail that they are unable to pay, preventing them from leaving jail while they wait for trial. Community bail funds are a way to circumnavigate that process and have been vital for anti-racism protestors as well as low-income Black, brown and Indigenous folks. The Community Justice Exchange is a great place to start finding community bail funds near you—just be sure to look into your state, district, or territory’s laws first to ensure that cash bail is actually posted in that jurisdiction.

New York Public Library (NYPL) Correctional Services 
Donate a book to an incarcerated person today!

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