by Alan Bisbort
1. On the Yard by Malcolm Braly: Arguably the best American novel written about prison life (if not for Braly’s other novels Felony Tank and Shake Him Till He Rattles). Think of it as King Rat, set in San Quentin State Prison.
2. False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons by Malcolm Braly: Heartbreaking memoir about a decent guy plagued by hard luck and delusions of grandeur. What talent he had! This only underscores the tragedy of his death in a car wreck shortly after he got out of prison and got his act together.
3. Cell 2455, Death Row by Caryl Chessman: The first, and best, of four books this remarkable prisoner published during the 12 years he was on Death Row at San Quentin. When he was gassed in 1960, America lost one of her truly unique voices and visions.
4. In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott: Despite the infamy of his actions when he was sprung from prison by Norman Mailer, Abbott knew what he was writing about and had a way of conveying it as if his life depended on it. And it did, as it happens.
5. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver: This book of essays and remembrances of life at San Quentin State Prison instantly put this convicted rapist in the front rank of American letters. He completely blew it after that, though, succumbing to quixotic “revolutionary” scams and drugs. Too bad, because he had the touch.
6. We Who Are About to Die by David Lamson: An overlooked 1935 memoir by a man who spent a year on Death Row in San Quentin for murdering his wife, before his conviction was finally overturned. Questions still abound about his innocence.
7. Grimhaven by Robert J. Tasker: This 1928 account of prison life has few rivals for authenticity.
8. Prison Stories by Seth Ferranti: Yes, there are prisoners writing brilliant stuff even as we speak, and they’re not all hip hop “artists.” Ferranti is a “prisoner of the war on drugs,” having gotten a 25-year sentence for dealing LSD. While serving his term, he has earned a college writing degree (from the University of Iowa) while publishing gritty, tough, true-life tales. He’s one to watch.
9. You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black: This 1926 classic ends with the author looking back over his years as a safe-cracker, stick up thief, bum and San Quentin inmate. He concludes (presaging Henry Miller): “I have no money, no wife, no auto. I have no dog. I have neither a radio set nor a rubber plant—I have no troubles.” The book is available in reissue with a foreword by William S. Burroughs and cover art by Joe Coleman. What more can you want?
10. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Bending the rules a bit, Malcolm X’s recollections of his time in prison and as a criminal deserve to make this list. Even upon rereading, the book still makes you sit up and listen.