ABC Literacy – Resources

Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives

American Friends Service Committee, Prison Watch Project

The Newark based Prison Watch Project of the AFSC has been working on prison reform for many years. Projects include advocacy to severely limit the use of solitary confinement and to end prison privatization.


Centurion Ministries

Centurion is a secular non-profit organization whose primary mission is to free from prison those who are innocent of the crimes for which they have been wrongly convicdted and imprisoned.


Equal Justice Initiative

EJI is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.


The Innocence Project

This is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing.


The Marshall Project

This New York City based project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that through original journalism and partnership with other news organizations seeks to enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of our criminal justice system.


The Sentencing Project

Founded in 1986, this Washington D.C. based non-profit works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.


Princeton-based Prison Education Initiatives

The Petey Green Program

The Petey Green program supplements education in prisons by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free tutoring and related programming to prisoners. Based in Princeton, the program now operates in other states.


Prison Teaching Initiative

This Princeton University based group aims to reduce incarceration by increasing opportunities for secondary education inside the prisons.


SPEAR: “Students for Prison Education and Reform”

This Princeton University group holds conference and supports initiatives to reduce mass incarceration and increase educational programs.


Reading List

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) The New Jim Crow was not the first book to link the war on drugs, racism and mass incarceration, but it has had the biggest impact. Alexander, a former defense attorney and a scholar, argues that the U.S. criminal justice functons as a system of racial control by targeting black men through the war on drugs. “We have not ended racial caste in America,” she writes, “We have merely redesigned it.”

Jamie Bissonette, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole (2008) After the Attica massacre I 1971, prisoners at Walpole’s Massachusetts Correctional Institution won the right to gain some control over day-to-day operations. This book tells the story.

Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008). In this well-documented history, Blackmon shows that slavery persisted well into the 20th century, not just through the tentacles of the sharecropping system. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, chained, faced with subhuman living coditions, and subject to torture. These practices were enabled by the Southern justice system and persisted to 1951.

Deborah Brandt, Literacy in American Lives (2001) Brandt traces the changing requirements for literacy as they were felt in the lives of ordinary Americans during the twentieth century.

Bell Gale ChevignyDoing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (1999) The essays in this rich anthology, covering a twenty-five year period, were winners of the PEN writer’s association annual contest for writers behind bars.

Baz Dreisinger, Incarceration Nations (2016) The author teaches English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and runs in-prison education programs. She has also spent time in the prisons of nine countries, teaching creative writing and working on restorative justice programs. In almost every place, she found prisoners enduring brutality and neglect. Norway, oil-rich and humane, was one exception. A warden explained: “Treat them like human beings and they will act like human beings.”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1998) This classic work reflects Freire’s belief that every human being , whether or not illiterate, can look critically at the world in a dialogical encounter with others.

Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration (2006) Gottschalk examines the complex historical and political forces that have led to our current crisis of mass incarceration.

Laura Magnani & Harmon L. Wray, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm of our Failed Prison System (2006) Writing for the American Friends Service Committee, Magnani and Wray offer a powerful moral critique of the US criminal justice system and offer a new paradigm based on restorative justice and reconciliation.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014). As a young attorney, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor and wrongly condemned. This riveting book describes one of his first cases, that of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit.

Jean Trounstine, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison (2001) Trounstine, who taught at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachuseets for ten years, focuses on six prisoners who each in her own way discover the transformative power of drama.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) In this compelling account, Wilkerson chronicles of the decades-long migration of African-Americans for northern and western cities in search of a better life. The book is essential background reading for an understanding of the race relations that inform today’s criminal justice system.


How Do You Spell Murder. This documentary chronicles the work of the prisoner-managed L.I.F.E. program that operated at New Jersey State Prison from 1984 to 2010. Over 70% of prison inmates cannot read or are functionally illiterate. The film explores the connection between illiteracy and crime and demonstrates the positive work that prisoners can do on the inside when given institutional support. The film also features the ABC Literacy Resources – Prison Program and co-founder Elaine Phillips as she works with literacy students and tutors to diagnose learning disabilities. For information about this video, see the website of filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond: http://www.videoverite.tv/pages/film_hdysm_about.html

The Last Graduation, Barbara Zahn. This film documents the movement for prison education programs in New York State that formed after the Attica uprising. It includes interviews with prisoners who received college degrees while in prison and shows the heartbreak caused when Congress eliminated Pell grant funding for prisoners. For more information, go to https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/last-graduation

What I Want My Words to Do to You. Discover how playwright Eve Ensler founded a remarkable writing community in a women’s prison. See http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2003/whatiwant/ for details.

Training Materials

ABC Literacy professionals have had good success with Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory language programs. For information, see the Barton Reading website.

Starting A Prison Literacy Program: A How-To Manual, prepared by the L.I.F.E. program managers. A PDF copy of this detailed manual is available online.

For Children

Eve Bunting, The Wednesday Surprise. (Scholastic Press). A grandmother surprises her son and grandchild by learning to read.

Jacqueline Woodson Visiting Day (Scholastic Press). Here is a strong family that understands the meaning of unconditional love. The story is told from the point of view of a little girl visiting her father in prison.