Why you should care
Because these books tell it like it is.
When I first got locked up, in 1993, I didn’t know a thing about prison, so I had to learn fast. It was either that or end up on the wrong end of a shank. I had a release date, and I was intent on making it. Prison has its own parlance, unofficial rules and customs. As a guy from the suburbs, I needed to immerse myself in prison gang culture real quick. So I read a lot. By reading I gained insight into where the gangs were coming from, which I hoped would alleviate any potential problems. (By reading I also satisfied my insatiable appetite, which began in my youth, for the unknown and potentially dangerous.) Here are best of those books.
The Black Hand: The Story of Rene “Boxer” Enriquez and His Life in the Mexican Mafia, by Chris Blatchford
This 2009 book offers a glimpse into the secretive world of the Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme.” This is the same prison gang that murdered people over their involvement with the Edward James Olmos–helmed American Me, a film that depicted the gang in all its savage glory. Blatchford tells the mesmerizing and unbelievably violent story of Boxer, who defected from La Eme, and his involvement in the cutthroat world as a member of what’s been called the “Daddy of All Street Gangs.”
In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison, by Jack Henry Abbott
This is a prison classic — one of the best books written about life on the inside. Abbott was a long-term convict who’d served in some form of confinement since he was a juvenile. The book goes into the do’s and don’ts in prison, especially when it comes to interactions between different races. In this 1981 book, edited by literary giant Norman Mailer, Abbott provides a compelling breakdown of the politics of surviving prison. I used this as a guidebook on how to communicate with the gangs and different races in prison: If you don’t obey the rules and codes on the inside, you can inadvertently start a riot.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, by George Jackson
A classic collection, published in 1970, of letters from a revolutionary figure credited with starting the Black Guerrilla Family in the California penal system in the late ’60s. The BGF is one of the big four prison gangs, which also includes La Eme, the Aryan Brotherhood and Nuestra Familia. In his letters, Jackson discusses the system of oppression he saw as keeping his people down — he was a firm believer that African-Americans had to be militant in their response to this oppression. Reading this book helped me understand the racism, persecution and violence that Black men face in prison, and in the world, every day.
The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, by Pete Earley
This 1993 book takes readers inside the vicious Leavenworth penitentiary, where Earley had unprecedented access for almost two years. Of special interest to me were the chapters on Thomas Silverstein, former leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and a cold-blooded killer who murdered prison guards for disrespecting him. Earley documented his interactions with and the stories of everyone from sexual predators and bank robbers to wardens and correctional officers, providing a riveting insight into the primordial world of one of the most notorious correctional facilities in the U.S. — a place I was glad I never had to serve time at.