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Must Read Books That Were Written in Prison

When you're in jail, you don't have much time to do anything but think. That's why some of the books that were written in prison are so thoughtful — and so hard-hitting.

Being in prison means that you're facing the same four walls for months, years, or even the rest of your life. Being stuck in one place without being able to hold a job, see your family, or watch TV often forces people to think about their position in life. Perhaps that's why so many great books happen to be written by people who were incarcerated. 

If you love true crime novels, want to check out the work of those who were incarcerated, or if you just like getting a very honest perspective on life, the following books that were written in prison are worth flipping through at least once or twice. 

The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo

Perhaps one of the most historically significant books written in prison was The Travels of Marco Polo, by the famous explorer himself. Marco Polo allegedly wrote accounts of his travels to Asia while he was imprisoned in Genoa for the crime of being a well-known Venetian. 

Though it's not totally sure how much of his accounts were fiction and how much were real, The Travels of Marco Polo made a huge impact on history — and still makes for a very entertaining read. That's why one of the best historical fiction shows on Netflix features his travels, after all. 

The Gates of Janus by Ian Brady

A number of the most disturbing books that were written in prison were written by serial killers, and such is the case with Ian Brady. Brady was serving life in prison for raping and killing his victims, and in this groundbreaking book, he analyzes a number of other murders through his icy, Dexter-like viewpoint. 

Ever wonder what a serial killer thinks before he attacks a victim? The Gates of Janus will give you a damn good idea of what's going on, and will scare the daylights out of you. 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

One of the most surprising books that were written in prison would have to be Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes had spent multiple stints in jail and allegedly claimed that the prologue of his most famous book ended up coming to him while he was serving time.

Legend has it that the drudgery of the prison forced the writer's mind to get imaginative... which, in turn, sparked the thought that later became Don Quixote

Selected Stories of O. Henry by O. Henry

Hardcore literature fans might recognize O. Henry as William Sydney Porter — a banker who served time after being successfully charged with embezzlement. His short stories are legendary. And that's why this collection still remains a classic after all this time. 

If you ever thought that great fiction that didn't involve true crime themes couldn't come from a jailbird, O. Henry will prove you wrong. After all, he's a classic literature author for a reason. 

Couldn't Keep It to Myself by Wally Lamb and the Inmates at York Correctional Institution

If you're looking for a more modern book that was written in prison, you might want to look at Couldn't Keep It to Myself. This raw, biting collection of testimonies from female inmates in a Pennsylvania prison will give you an inside glance at what caused women inmates to enter into the criminal justice system. 

Wally Lamb, a New York Times author, did a wonderful job of helping prison inmates gain the voice they need. The end result is a cathartic, and at times tragic, glance into the lives of women currently serving time in a federal prison. 

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Greg David Roberts was a criminal who spent years fleeing the Australian prison system using his faux-passport. He found himself in the streets of Bombay, and living in the seedy and edgy Bombay underworld. 

Shantaram was written while Roberts was serving his second term in Aussie prison, and is a fictionalized account of what went on in his life. What makes this so amazing, though, is the sheer variety of characters he includes in there. 

This book features prostitutes, holy men, beggars, mafia dons, and a whole underground society you'd never expect to hear about, all laid bare for readers to see. 

Even if it's fiction, it's one of the best true crime books that were written in prison — and definitely takes first place as one of the top romans a clefs to read this year. 

In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott

Jack Henry Abbott was a man who was serving time for robbery, manslaughter, and several other charges when he began a penpal friendship with author Norman Mailer. Mailer, who was busy writing The Executioner's Song, got schooled by Abbott on what life really was like behind bars in a maximum security prison. 

This collection of letters are brutally gritty, and at times, unbearably human. That's why this is one of the best books that were written in prison, and why everyone who's curious about jail life needs to spend time reading it. 

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

After spending a whopping 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela had seen, thought, and experienced a lot of life. His smash hit book, Conversations with Myself is a compilation of letters and writings that details his struggles in prison as a humanitarian activist. Most of the writings in this anthology were written while he served his sentence. 

Soon after he finished his prison sentence, Mandela was elected as president of South Africa. People who feel doubtful about their ability to make a difference in the world need to read this, if only to get the inspirational messages behind so many of his letters. 

To date, this remains one of the most powerful books that were written in prison to ever be released on store shelves. 

Justine by Marquis de Sade

Marquis de Sade was famous for his sexual exploits — and actually is the reason why we have the word "sadism." During his time being jailed for sex crimes, the famed Marquis wrote Justine, a book that follows a woman sentenced to death during the French Revolution. 

Graphic enough to shock people, even by today's standards, Justine was allegedly written by Marquis as a way to "relieve sexual tension" while he was in jail. There's lots of rape, sex slavery, and torture...and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. 

Be forewarned: reading this may make you see BDSM in a different light — even though proper BDSM is actually consensual.

The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes by John Boroski

This is one of the few must-read books written by serial killers that also (technically) fits under the categories of books that were written while in prison. H.H. Holmes, America's first serial killer, was known for brutal killings and his "house of horrors" out in Chicago. 

John Boroski found many of the killer's old writings and letters, and published them all in a tidy book. No other book gives you as good a glimpse into the mind of one of the earliest serial killers out there — and that's why this is a great book for anyone who's obsessed with true crime

Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Once-loved radio host Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the murder of a police office in the 1980s. The trial that convicted him was known for being extremely biased, and at times, a true-to-life kangaroo court. 

Live from Death Row is his book detailing the absolutely shocking issues that come with prison life, from the regular humiliation to the dehumanization of inmates. Mumia Abu-Jamal's writing grapples with the American justice system and gives a scathing critique of a system that failed him and many others. 

Though it was written in the 80s, Abu-Jamal's words are as relevant now as they ever were. And, that's why everyone should read this book. 

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