The past two years have been filled with ups and downs, but these must-reads reminded our staff why we’re in this fight and inspired them to keep pressing forward in challenging times.
Our staff named these their most powerful books of 2021. The list includes books by scholars, lawyers, exonerees, and children of incarcerated parents. The writing included touches on everything from the history of the flawed death penalty system to the 1971 Attica Prison uprising to an allegorical sci-fi story about a post-prison abolition world.
If you’re looking to take your understanding of justice and equity to the next level, you’ll want to read these and even consider them as holiday gifts.
1. Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty by Maurice Chammah
Texas has shown a dogged commitment to carrying out executions, most of which unfairly target Black men, people with intellectual disabilities, and those in poverty, for more than 100 years. Prior to 2003, when Texas executed Larry Allen Hayes, the state had not executed a white man convicted of murdering since 1854, when a white man was executed for killing another white man’s favorite slave. Maurice Chammah’s book investigates the use of the death penalty in the state, which is responsible for about one-third of all executions in the U.S.
“It’s about the history of the death penalty in Texas and shares the stories of many individuals who have been part of this history, for better and for worse,” said Emma Bratman, Innocence Project’s post-conviction litigation paralegal. “It’s my favorite book that I have read.” Available to purchase here.
2. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
If you have not caught up with the New York Times’ 1619 Project, first published online and in the New York Times Magazine in 2019 you can now read the expanded version of the Pulitzer Winning-project in book form. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work is foundational in understanding the societal, cultural, and economic impact that slavery had and continues to have in the United States, including its impact on mass incarceration. Available for purchase here.
3. Redeeming Justice by Jarrett Adams
Exoneree and former Innocence Project Post-conviction Legal Fellow Jarrett Adams reflects on his journey from wrongly convicted teenager to jailhouse attorney to exoneree in this moving memoir.
While in prison, Adams devoured every legal book he could get his hands on, hoping to chart a pathway to freedom. In the process, he became the go-to legal scholar in the prison and assisted others with their cases. Today, Adams is an attorney who represents wrongfully convicted people and the founder of Life After Justice, an organization that supports exonerees through the challenges of re-entry.
“This right here is a blockbuster,” said Christina Swarns, Innocence Project’s executive director, of the memoir. Available to purchase here.
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4. Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam
Innocence Project board member and member of the Exonerated Five, Yusef Salaam is a prolific writer, but this is his first memoir reflecting directly on what he experienced as a teenager wrongly convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case.
“His inspiring story is motivational and highlights the need for criminal justice reform in America,” said Nigel Quiroz, Innocence Project’s community organizer.
While the case has been written about extensively, is the subject of a documentary, and was most recently dramatized by Ava Duvernay in the series When They See Us, in this poignant memoir we hear straight from Dr. Salaam. He brilliantly illustrates what it was like to be an innocent Black child, ferociously attacked in the court of public opinion in what amounted to one of America’s most polarizing media and political assaults. Available to purchase, here.
5. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha Blain
Keisha Blain thoughtfully positions Fannie Lou Hammer’s impact as a civil rights advocate alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. Hammer, co-founder of the Mississippi Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Caucus, led efforts to register thousands of disenfranchised Black voters and organized movements to advance women’s rights. Facing immeasurable challenges as an impoverished and disabled Black woman from Mississippi, Hammer was nonetheless willing to make sacrifices to win equality for others, which is why Innocence Project executive director Christina Swarns keenly recommends the book. Available to purchase here.
6. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
Stories about incarceration are often centered on the person in prison and the victim of the crime, leaving aside the deeply damaging impact of incarceration on families and communities. In her memoir, Ashley Ford reflects on her father’s incarceration and complicated relationship with her mother.
“This memoir of the author’s childhood and growing up with an incarcerated father explores the consequences of the criminal legal system from the perspective of family,” said Tara Thompson, Innocence Project’s senior staff attorney. “If you want to know why the old adage that ‘when someone does time, their family does the time with them’ is true, read this book.’” Available to purchase here.
7. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
If you have ever wondered what the economic cost of racism is and how it touches all of us, Heather McGhee writes a brilliant analysis that examines history, politics, and economics to answer this question. Her writing takes a deep look at just how much racism has set us back as a society and assesses its consequences on each and every one of us. Available to purchase here.
Help Darrill Henry this holiday season as he rebuilds his life after wrongful incarceration
8. I Am Troy Davis by Jen Marlowe, Martina Correia-Davis, and Troy Davis
It’s been a decade since Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for a crime he always maintained he did not commit. Davis’ case galvanized support from around the world and inspired thousands of advocates to join the anti-death penalty movement. The book provides an intimate view into the loving person Davis was and the racially charged world around him that led to his wrongful execution. Available to purchase here.
9. Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger
To prepare for her externship at the Innocence Project, Natalie Tamblyn found this collection of stories of wrongful conviction helpful. “I feel it really highlights how important it is for law enforcement to do their homework in investigating crimes but also how important the work we do at the Innocence Project is,” Tamblyn said.
The riveting anthology includes the stories of 14 exonerees as told to mystery and thriller writers, including Lee Child, Sara Paretsky, and Laurie R. King. Available to purchase here.
10. A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays by Marc Bookman
Marc Bookman has dedicated his career to fighting the death penalty as the executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation and a former public defender in Philadelphia. In this collection of essays, Bookman makes compelling arguments to end the death penalty based on the many ways it has shown itself to be flawed, innacurate, racist, and ineffective.
“He weaves an unﬂinching portrait of twelve cases that illustrate in painful detail why the death penalty remains one of the greatest stains on the moral fabric of our society,” Innocence Project board member and ambassador Tony Goldwyn said. “These essays will make your blood run cold.” Available to purchase here
11. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
In Akwaeke Emezi’s whimsical novel, Black transgender teen Jam, is on the hunt for a child abuser in her fictional town of Lucille — inspired by the depiction of similar settings in Toni Morrison’s novels. Jam joins forces with a creature who comes alive from her mother’s painting in her quest to uncover the truth.
“This book is actually about prison and police abolition and what justice could look like in a post-abolition world,” said Lauren Gottesman, Innocence Project staff attorney. “I can’t stop recommending this book to adults even though it’s a young adult book. Available to purchase here.
12. The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein, a leading voice in housing policy, ”describes how our government deliberately segregated America,” according to Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project’s director of policy. His book examines how practices intentionally administered through the laws and policy decisions made by our local, state, and federal government continue to harm us today and prevent racial equity, even though redlining policies have been banned. Available to purchase here.
13. Blood in the Water about the Attica Uprising of 1971 by Heather Ann Thompson
Fifty years ago, over 1,300 people incarcerated in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility organized an uprising to protest years of gross mistreatment within the institution. Imprisoned people held guards hostage while they negotiated for more humane living conditions over the course of four days. On the fourth day, the state sent armed troops to overthrow the revolt, killing 39 people and injuring hundreds. In the end, only those incarcerated were prosecuted, and the state failed to support the families of those they had killed.
In her book, Heather Ann Thompson amplifies the voices of the people impacted by the atrocity and their fight for justice. “It’s riveting and so well researched,” Ed Boland, Innocence Project’s director of development, said of the Pulitzer Prize winning book. Available to purchase here.
14. The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas
In November, Innocence Project clients Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam were exonerated from the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. Their exoneration was based on evidence that supported their innocence and pointed to other suspects, which the NYPD and FBI hid at the time of their trial. Files unearthed in the investigation into their cases showed that law enforcement had information that could have prevented their wrongful conviction and years of incarceration.
Seeing justice delayed for Aziz and Islam, Natalie Baker, an Innocence Project fellow, was reminded of the government’s killing of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois. His murder, orchestrated by the FBI and Chicago police who perceived the Black liberation group as a threat to national security, was depicted in the 2021 Netflix’s film Judas and the Black Messiah. “[It’s] a timely reminder of who actually murdered another revolutionary Black leader and organizer — a powerful must-read,” Baker said. Available to purchase here.
15. Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie
Andrea Ritchie’s book examines the racial profiling of and police brutality against Black, Indigenous, and brown women in America, an often overlooked demographic. She focuses on the experience of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and Mya Hall, who were all killed by police, and Dajerria Becton and Monica Jones who survived violent and unwarranted altercations with police. Ritchie centers women and trans women’s voices in the larger conversation of mass incarceration and police brutality, ensuring that they are not forgotten.
“This is a critical book in 2021,” said Denise Tomasini-Joshi, Innocence Project’s chief of staff. Available to purchase here.