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The Creativity of Captivity

10 Great Books Written From Prison

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 15, 2020

Taking a Stand

There is a proud history of authors who have been imprisoned for their efforts at social and political change. These activists used the power of the pen to further their causes while locked up.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for demonstrating without a permit. He spent the following eleven days in jail, during which he wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail, responding to public criticism of his activism. The piece was widely published and became an important touchstone of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.

Turkish journalist and author Ahmet Altan wrote these words in 2018, while serving a life sentence on trumped-up charges of treason. Despite being denied writing materials, he managed to produce his wise and defiant book, I Will Never See The World Again, in installments smuggled out by his lawyers.

I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.

In 1846, American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a tax earmarked to support a war with Mexico. He spent only one night locked up, but the experience had such a profound effect on him, he used it as the basis for his famous essay, Civil Disobedience, to be analyzed in the future by many a high school student.

It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.

South African lawyer Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for his anti-apartheid activism. During that time, he wrote Conversations With Myself, a collection of speeches and letters about his life and work. After his release from prison in 1990, he continued his work to successfully end apartheid and was elected president of South Africa in 1994.

Prison Narratives

These authors were motivated by the desire to share their experience of prison with others. And we thank them! It is certainly far better to read about such things than to experience them.

To illustrate: to walk ten miles in an enclosed space of ten feet is not really movement. There are not ten miles of space, only time.

In 1977, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer received a letter from a prisoner named Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott asserted that Mailer's depiction of prison in the book was not realistic and offered a more factual account. Mailer was impressed with Abbott's literary prowess and helped him publish In The Belly of the Beast.

My heart's in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand's in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.

French author Jean Genet wrote his celebrated debut novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, while serving a sentence for burglary in 1944. He composed it on sheets of brown paper that prisoners were given for the purpose of constructing bags. The manuscript was discovered and burned by a prison guard, so Genet had to rewrite it. Luckily, the second draft survived.

Two hundred women, no phones, no washing machines, no hair dryers—it was like Lord of the Flies on estrogen.

A well-heeled Smith College graduate, Piper Kerman was a rather unusual inmate at the Danbury Federal Correction Institution. Her memoir, Orange Is the New Black, adapted as a popular television show, documents her thirteen-month prison stint, starting in 2004, for her brief participation in a money-laundering scheme concocted by a former lover, ten years prior.


In some cases, great authors may simply be born of boredom. Lacking other forms of entertainment, these prisoners decided to make their own.

I'll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.

Born William Sydney Porter, the short story writer known as O. Henry was convicted and incarcerated on charges of embezzlement. Before, during, and after his imprisonment in 1897, he produced and published dozens of stories, poems, and nonfiction works. He was known for his timely subject matter and surprise endings. We recommend his Selected Short Stories.

Let us give ourselves indiscriminately to everything our passions suggest, and we will always be happy . . . Conscience is not the voice of Nature but only the voice of prejudice.

In the late 1700s, the French aristocrat the Marquis de Sade scandalized many with his libertine lifestyle. He was eventually imprisoned for his lascivious escapades. To break up the tedium of life behind bars, he penned a series of sexually graphic novels including Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom.

In the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.

La Morte d'Arthur, written in the 1400s, is widely regarded as the definitive work in the cycle of legends surrounding King Arthur and his chivalric Round Table. All the more surprising, then, that it was penned by Sir Thomas Malory, while in London's Marshalsea prison, awaiting trial on more than a hundred charges of violence and burglary.

The Industry of Imprisonment

In this time of quarantine, many of us are feeling a bit like prisoners in our own homes. You may find yourself digging deep to find ways to be productive. Perhaps you are discovering new, creative ways to occupy your time, like gardening, knitting, puzzling, reading, and, of course, writing. It will be exciting to see, in the years to come, the many great works that are undoubtedly being born from the crisis. Stay safe everyone!

You can combat social isolation by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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