The Innocence Project Shares 11 Best Books of 2023

A list of powerful reads, both new and old, that will take your understanding of justice to the next level.

12.22.23 By Meghan Nguyen

The Innocence Project Shares 11 Best Books of 2023

As 2023 comes to a close, our staff shared the most powerful books highlighting the importance of advancing criminal and racial justice reform at a time when innocent people continue to be wrongly incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.

Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry or memoir, these reads encourage empathy and compassion and provide insight into the failings of our criminal legal system and what must be done to make it more just. If you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift or if reading more is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, here are some recommendations to take your understanding of justice and equity to the next level.

1. Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This is a fictionalized story about America’s private, for-profit prison system, where prisoners must compete in death matches for the ultimate prize: their freedom. A New York Times “Top Ten Book of the Year,” it is a devastating indictment of our criminal legal and penal system and the ways its members have been conditioned to have an attendant enthusiasm for violence.

“I was absolutely enthralled by the dystopian yet discomfitingly believable premise, the captivating cast of characters, and the blistering commentary,” said Innocence Network coordinator Shirley Wu. “This was a powerful reminder to me that dehumanization and commodification are two sides of the same coin that has made the prison industrial complex the incredibly profitable industry that it is.” Available to purchase here.

2. Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H

Recommended by the Innocence Project’s social work team, this raw and relatable memoir explores power, justice, trust, and love through the story of 14-year-old Lamya H, which unfolds in a series of intimate essays spanning childhood to life in New York City. A queer hijabi Muslim immigrant, Lamya grapples with her identity and navigates her coming-of-age by finding strength and inspiration in Quranic stories.

“The book is a manifesto for self-acceptance and a call to action for dismantling rigid binaries. It’s a powerful reminder that we are all capable of defying labels and embracing our true selves,” NPR wrote of the book in their “Books We Love for 2023.Available to purchase here. 

3. Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts

In this collection of powerful and nimble poems, Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, lawyer and author, delves into the consequences of incarceration, exploring a spectrum of emotions and experiences, including homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and forgiveness. Mr. Betts uses both traditional and innovative forms, such as the redaction of court documents to create revolutionary “found poems.” Available to purchase here.

4. Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class by Dan Canon

Contrary to most people’s belief in the importance of jury trials, the majority of criminal cases never reach this stage, with plea bargains determining almost all criminal convictions behind closed doors. In his book, author Dan Canon argues that while plea bargaining expedites case resolutions, it perpetuates an unjust system, creating a disenfranchised underclass. He contends that while innocent people may plead guilty to avoid harsh sentences, the truly guilty escape justice.

Pleading Out traces the history of plea bargaining against the history of class struggle in the U.S. … it’s an interesting spin on an under-researched angle, and seems particularly salient these days, as labor power grows and plea bargaining rules the system,” said Amanda Wallwin, one of the Innocence Project’s state policy advocates. Available to purchase here.

5. #SayHerName: Black Women’s Stories of Police Violence and Public Silence by Kimberle Crenshaw

Since its founding in 2014, the #SayHerName movement has served as both a global rallying cry and guiding force in the aftermath of police killings of Black women, such as Breonna Taylor, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey and more. Written by Kimberlé Crenshaw — a professor and civil rights advocate who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 — this book offers a framework for understanding the particular vulnerability of Black women to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. Ms. Crenshaw centers Black women’s experiences in police violence and gender violence discourse, emphasizing that all Black lives matter and that the police cannot kill without consequence. Available to purchase here.

6. Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered

Innocence Project Case Analyst Emilie Winter shares: “[Danielle Sered’s] book invites us to think outside of the box when it comes to our criminal legal system; this book made me reimagine the different ways we can address harm, violence, and accountability that better serve victims, those accused, and our communities. Her vision and work with restorative justice has restored a new sense of hope in me.”

This award-winning book asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration, arguing that there are other pragmatic solutions that can meet the needs of survivors and create pathways for people who have committed violence to repair the harm they committed. Available to purchase here

7. Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt by Orisanmi Burton

Tip of the Spear presents a radical reexamination of the 1970s Attica prison uprising, arguing that it marked a criminalized tradition of Black radicalism within U.S. prisons. By expanding beyond conventional state records, Orisanmi Burton draws on oral history and applies Black radical theory to center the intellectual and political goals of incarcerated individuals. The book promises to reshape our perception of prisons, portraying them not only as arenas of conflict and suppression but also as sources of defiant Black life, revolutionary consciousness, and abolitionist potential. Available to purchase here.

8. Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State by Lyle C. May

Witness provides a critical examination of shifts in sentencing laws, prison policies fostering recidivism, and “tough on crime” perspectives that have failed to ensure societal safety or prevent crime. Through his insightful and analytical essays, Mr. May explores topics such as capital punishment, life imprisonment, prison education, and journalism, shedding light on activism from within the system aimed at abolishing the carceral state. Drawing on over 20 years of personal experience on North Carolina’s congregate death row, Mr. May challenges myths and misinformation about the criminal legal system, offering readers a grounded perspective on the realities of life inside prison. Available to purchase here.

9. Prison Capital: Mass Incarceration and Struggles for Abolition Democracy in Louisiana by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Every year from 1998 to 2020, with a single exception, Louisiana has held the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the nation and globally. Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, an assistant professor of geography and African American studies, presents the first detailed account of Louisiana’s unparalleled shift towards mass incarceration spanning 50 years. By examining Louisiana’s carceral crisis, the book helps us better understand the intricate connections between mass criminalization, racial capitalism, and the potential for dismantling the power of prisons in various ways. Available to purchase here.

10. No More Police; A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie

In No More Police, Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie deliver a compelling argument on the ineffectiveness of policing in preventing violence. The book, serving as a roadmap for abolition, centers on survivors of various forms of violence and makes a persuasive case for a world where “the tools required to prevent, interrupt, and transform violence in all its forms are abundant,” violence is the exception, and flourishing, well-supported communities are the norm.

“Police abolition is seen as an unachievable, dangerous and radical idea. Only the later adjective may be true, but radical change is what it may take for U.S. citizens to achieve our most cherished cultural goals such as freedom and prosperity,” said Innocence Project Chief of Staff Denise Tomasini-Joshi. “Kaba and Ritchie provide a clear case for bringing police abolition into our list of resolutions and vision.”Available to purchase here.

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

Recommended by Innocence Project Administrative Assistant Leland Hurley, this seminal text continues to be a favorite read. Michelle Alexander argues that the U.S. has not ended racial caste but rather redesigned it. Her book has been referenced in legal decisions, adopted for widespread readings, and has played a role in the creation of initiatives like the Marshall Project and the Art for Justice Fund. Indeed, the Birmingham News proclaimed it as “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.”  A 10th-anniversary edition, featuring a new preface reflecting on the book’s impact and the current state of the criminal justice reform movement, is now available from The New Press. Available to purchase here

What were some of your favorite reads of 2023? Share with us in the comments below.

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