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Book covers courtesy of Penguin Random House, William Morrow Paperbacks and Beacon Press

PJP writers recommended books they thought every student in America should read. 

“The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee 

Heather McGhee’s book explores the way racism exacts a bigger toll than you might imagine on individuals. 

McGhee takes us through the realities of segregation in this country and the unjust conditions Black Americans have long been subjected to. One example she invokes are swimming pools. In my neighborhood growing up there was ample access to clean community pools. In other places, like Mississippi, pools became sites of resistance to integration. McGhee tells the story of one pool that was literally filled in with cement to keep Black people out. In the end, everyone — Blacks and whites — lost out. 

In the second chapter, McGhee refers to an 1857 book written by a white Southerner named Hinton Rowan Helper, “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It.” McGhee writes: “Helper had taken it upon himself to count how many schools, libraries, and other public institutions had been set up in free states compared to slave states. In Pennsylvania, for instance, he counted 393 public libraries; in South Carolina, just 26. In Maine, 256; in Georgia, 38. New Hampshire had 2,381 public schools; Mississippi, 782. The disparity was similar everywhere he looked.” 

Such disparities endure in 2022 — there are more prisons in some communities than schools.

— Jeffery Shockley, writing from State Correctional Institution – Fayette, Pennsylvania

“Salvation: Black People and Love” by bell hooks

This book discusses the Black community through the lens of love. bell hooks writes a lot about love, but in this particular title she explores how it is performed by the Black community and what love has meant for the Black Americans throughout history. It touches on how one’s perception of love, race and culture can be swayed by what is viewed in the media. 

Not all families resembled the Huxtables in the 1980s sitcom, “The Cosby Show,” but so many wanted to, regardless of how scripted it might be. This, hooks argues, was a result of Black people not valuing themselves.

“So many black folks are grateful to the families that raised them,”  hooks writes.

I was raised by my maternal grandmother from the age of 3 until I graduated high school and enlisted with the U.S. Army. It can be difficult to criticize my environment, as I know these people in my adolescence did the best they could and that I was not fully aware of the personal struggles they endured. 

“However, to regain emotional well-being we have to see the bad that emerged in these settings as well as the good. As long as black folks normalize loss and abandonment, acting as though it is an easy feat to overcome the psychological wounds this pain inflicts, we will not lay the necessary groundwork for emotional well-being that makes love possible.” 

— Jeffery Shockley, writing from SCI Fayette, Pennsylvania

“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

This is a treasure for one seeking self-renewal and transformation. The true story details the rigorous necessity of survival against horrific persecution during the Holocaust. It utilizes a psychiatric framework to illuminate the purpose one clings dearly to when all other hope has been stolen.

This book is also a guide to others going through everyday struggles such as cancer, addiction, depression, prison and others. What meaning in our lives will we seek when when we face the worst our lives have to throw at us? What light will we find within ourselves when circumstances devour all that we have known, when all that we have left is our identity, and even that begins to crumble? Will our hearts and minds turn to religion? Family? Love? Or will we lay with our hopelessness, and sink into the unraveling?

“Man’s Search For Meaning” can also provide mental and spiritual instruction for people who have not yet faced such extreme conflict, which could be the book’s greatest value. We often cannot even begin to know our own breaking point until we are teetering at the precipice of the world’s edge. 

If you haven’t thought of which meaningful purpose in your life could knock the teeth out of the lion that hungers for you, this book most certainly will have you searching inward.

— Jason Dominick, writing from SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania

The following books are recommended by members of the California Justice Leaders, an AmeriCorps and Impact Justice collaboration that provides professional development training and leadership opportunities for formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted young adults. 

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
“I feel this book gives the reader a better understanding of how people in the U.S. are still under forms of control.”
— Crystal Navarro 

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson
“It gives insight of what proximity does instead of distant categorization.”
— Salvador Espinoza

“Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” by Luis J. Rodriguez
“This book is important to me because, although we may have not lived through that time, I can strongly relate to the characters. I myself have experienced poverty, gang involvement, incarceration, struggle, remorse, heartache, confusion and redemption. It’s a good book for the reader to enjoy its authenticity.”
— John Lara

“Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir” by Stanley Tookie Williams
“A story about a man’s journey from being co-founder of the Crips to a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and anti-gang activist.”
— Que Jackson

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
“A good book for students who may not know what other students of color go through in their communities.”
— Anonymous

“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein
“This is important for students to know why their communities are segregated and some are thriving while others are struggling with poverty, etc.”
— Anonymous

“The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne
“It tells you about the laws of attraction. When you desire something, you call and manifest it into existence by materializing it with your actions. If you want to change your life around, manifest and do what it takes to make that positive change happen.”
— Anonymous

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.