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10 Fiction Books About Prison

For someone who’s never been to prison, it can be hard to imagine what it feels like. Like with any experience, though, one of the most accessible ways to build empathy and understanding is to read fiction about it. These ten fiction books about prison offer their own unique insights into the psychological realities of incarceration, across geographies and decades.

10 Fiction Books About Prison - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alias Grace begins in 1851, when the narrator, Grace, is 24 years old. She has already been imprisoned for eight years, and being a rather well-behaved prisoner, her days are spent as a domestic servant in the Governor’s home. Margaret Atwood uses this as the foundation to tell a fictionalised version of the life and crimes of the real Grace Marks, a servant who (along with her boyfriend) were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. Atwood, of course, does a fantastic job of capturing the emotional swings of such a life, peppered with details of the practical realities. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.

In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka

The Complete Stories - Franz Kafka - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Perhaps it’s cheating to include a short story in a list of fiction books about prison, but in true Kafka fashion, In The Penal Colony is so wonderfully complex that you’ll probably spend longer digesting it than you would a standard 300-page novel. The story is set, as the title suggests, in an otherwise-unnamed penal colony, where condemned prisoners are subjected to punishment by an elaborate torture device. The machine is programmed to carve their crimes into their skin, slowly executing them over the course of hours. It’s brutal, yes, but it’s narrated with a detachment that will grip you as much as it disturbs you.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Outsider - Albert Camus - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Albert Camus knocked it out of the park with his very first published novella, The Stranger (sometimes published as The Outsider). At first, it barely seems to be a fiction book about prison; rather, it’s about an ordinary man with flattened affect after the death of his mother who murders a man on an Algiers beach in extraordinary circumstances. However, as you read through, you’ll experience both the crime and its consequences, including his incarceration and descent into madness. Camus said his story explores “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd”, which is a pretty good summary.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most of these fiction books about prison focus on the experience of the incarcerated. Eileen offers something different: the perspective of someone who works in the prison. The titular character is a secretary who is not herself imprisoned, and yet spends her days among the guards and the “quotidian horrors” of the facility. They’re no worse than the horrors she faces in her squalid home with her alcoholic father. What’s more, she is technically a criminal herself, just one who has escaped the clutches of the ‘justice’ system. This story reveals what a fine line separates the guards from the guarded.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s rare for fiction books about prison to shoot straight to the top of best-seller lists, even more so for them to achieve widespread critical acclaim at the same time, but that’s what happened for The Mars Room. This is a story about “a life gone off the rails in contemporary America”. It begins with a woman at the start of two consecutive life sentences in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She’s all too aware that the world continues to turn outside without her, but she’s thrust into a whole new world inside, with thousands of women who will seize upon anything that makes it easier to survive. It’s an unsentimental view of the experience of incarceration, and thus a very insightful one.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

An American Marriage is a fiction book about prison, but it’s also a lived reality for thousands of Americans (59% of incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic). Roy and Celestial, in Tayari Jones’s story, are a young and upwardly-mobile Black couple whose lives are derailed when Roy is accused and convicted of sexual assault. He is imprisoned, and she must forge her own path forward, knowing that time has stopped for him inside. They communicate via letters, and the reader gets to see the tides of their relationship ebb and flow as they grow into entirely different people than the young newlyweds they once were. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

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Here’s one of the more lighthearted fiction books about prison (though it will still scare the pants off most readers, especially those not particularly well-versed in horror). Horrorstor is set in a haunted furniture superstore, where employees must spend the night to trace the source of acts of vandalism that have plagued the retailer. They discover that the superstore was built on the grounds of a notorious former prison, and the inmates who died there aren’t done haunting the place just because it’s got a new name. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s still great fun. Read my full review of Horrorstor here.

The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray

The Speechwriter - Martin McKenzie-Murray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the past few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking political satire is dead. The Speechwriter proves it isn’t so. It’s one of the fiction books about prison that is criminally underrated, and definitely deserves to be read more widely. The story is styled as the prison memoir of Toby, former speechwriter to the Prime Minister of Australia and current inmate of Sunshine correctional facility. It is edited (with frequent footnote asides) from his murderous cellmate Garry. Together, they weave a tale so extraordinary you can’t help but believe it. This is dark humour at its finest. Read my full review of The Speechwriter here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The operators of the facility in The Nickel Boys would probably balk at it being called a prison – they call it as a “reform school”, but let’s be real. It’s a place where troubled boys are sent by order of a judge, they can’t leave and they’re treated horribly. This is a really dark book, one that’s all the more horrifying for knowing that it’s based on the real-life Dozier School where “students” were subjected to extensive abuse and cruelty. The only upside of Whitehead’s fictional version is that there is a reckoning, and former “students” of the Nickel Academy come together to expose the administrators and seek justice. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Little Dorrit might be over 150 years old, and yet it still reflects the capriciousness of fate and the societal forces that might conspire to send someone to prison. Dickens drew upon his own experience, the shame and fear he felt about his father’s time in debtor’s prison, and wrote a story much darker than many of his earlier works but also, perhaps, more pertinent. This story doesn’t just explore the practical realities of imprisonment in the 19th century, but the psychological ramifications for both the imprisoned and their community that are timeless.

Bonus: This doesn’t really ‘count’ among fiction books about prison per se, but I couldn’t put together this list without at least mentioning it. The Fancies by Kim Lock is a great book about post-incarceration life, returning to the community after a period in prison, and the self-perpetuating cycle of engagement with the criminal justice system. Read my full review of The Fancies here.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve read a couple of these—Alias Grace, The Stranger, American Marriage. I wonder if there are also great books of nonfiction about being imprisoned.

    • Sheree

      May 18, 2024 at 3:10 PM

      Oh there definitely are, Deb! Orange Is The New Black was originally a memoir, and Just Mercy is a book about the Equal Justice Initiative – just two off the top of my head!

    • I also thought Alcatraz from Inside by Jim Quillen was an excellent inside look at life in prison from an inmate’s perspective!

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