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Seven essential books on prisoner rights and prison law that should be available to those inside and outside.

Seven Books Every American Prisoner and Criminal Attorney Should Own

It’s not always easy to locate quality legal books about prison law or prisoners’ rights. For starters, the field is a highly specialized one in which many like to call themselves experts, but few are worthy of such a designation. To make matters worse, lives depend on what is read and put into application. Even from a practical level, law books are often so expensive that simply purchasing several of them in pursuit of the right set is plainly cost prohibitive.

In an effort to cut through all of the blatant self-promotion and other unworthy antics, presented below are seven best buys in the prison law and prisoners’ rights arenas. Every criminal defense attorney, prison consultant, and American prisoner should have a copy of each and every one of these books. After all, their lives or the lives of their clients might just depend on it.

1. Georgetown Law Journal: Forty-Second Annual Review of Criminal Procedure, 2013. The bedrock text for incarcerated litigants and their attorneys seeking to challenge criminal convictions and sentences, “the Georgetown” — as it is commonly and affectionately called in the prison litigation industry — is a must have. An annually updated, quality legal text, the Georgetown presents the most recent developments in criminal case law. While focused mostly on federal practice, its chapters encompass everything from initial search and arrest to trial and even all the way to post-conviction motions. This book is an entire law library, but all within one cover.

2. Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (4th Edition) by John Boston and Daniel E. Manville. Considered by many to be the definitive work on prisoners’ rights, the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual is exactly what the title suggests. This massive book provides a blueprint for litigating in court, even if this litigation must be initiated in a prison cell. It not only presents the actual legal rights of prisoners, but also how to enforce those rights in any court in the land, and includes well-drafted sample pleadings. This book is a must-have for anyone in prison and everyone who has incarcerated clients.

3. Federal Prison Guidebook (2012-2014 Edition) by Alan Ellis, J. Michael Henderson & Todd Bussert. The Federal Prison Guidebook is a comprehensive text which is authored by world renowned criminal defense attorney Alan Ellis (former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and ACLU of Central Pennsylvania), noted criminal attorney Todd Bussert, and former Federal Bureau of Prisons official J. Michael Henderson. This book not only provides an introduction to life in prison, prison litigation, Residential Drug Abuse Program placement, issues specific to child pornography criminal defense, and more, but it also profiles every prison within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and every private contract facility that houses federal inmates. This book is essential for everyone in federal prison and any legal professional who works with federal prisoners or those charged with federal crimes.

4. A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual (9th Edition) by Columbia Human Rights Law Review. A book called “an important and impressive work” that “should be ready by everyone involved in, or concerned about, prisoners’ rights” by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the “JLM” — as it is commonly referred to — has been a staple of prison law libraries for decades on end. This exhaustive text is intended to guide prisoners in understanding what their rights are and how to enforce them both within the prison confines and in court. Coupled with the Georgetown and the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, prisoners and attorneys alike will find that most of the world’s essential knowledge on prisoners’ rights and prison litigation is right at their fingertips.

5. Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada (3rd Edition) by Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D. Perhaps the best prison education title ever, the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook is a trailblazer. In 1994, when American prisoners were barred from receiving federal financial aid to pay for their studies, a void was created. For a number of years prisoners were left out in the cold when it came to furthering their education. There simply was nothing on the market to help them navigate the correspondence education waters, much less something which showed them what was available. Then came Dr. Taylor’s venerable book. Now in its 3rd edition — which is published by the well-respected Prison Legal News ( — prisoners everywhere have a tool which not only shows them how to obtain an education from behind bars, but also presents over 160 correspondence program profiles, thus enabling incarcerated students to locate such programs, too.

Prison Grievances
6. Prison Grievances: When to Write, How to Write by Terri LeClercq. Part graphic novel, part how-to guide on filing grievances and litigating against prison officials, Prison Grievances is an interesting and unlikely useful text. When one thinks of legal books, they don’t think of graphic novels, yet Ms. LeClercq somehow manages to provide an exceptionally useful tool in a format that many non-legal types can appreciate and apply to their conditions of confinement. Filled with useful knowledge about the Texas Department of Corrections administrative remedy program — concepts which can be applied to any prison system — and exceptionally helpful checklists to help prisoners understand if they have a legitimate, legal complaint or not, Prison Grievances should be read by everyone in prison, and even those who engage in litigation on the behalf of prisoners. Quite an exceptional text, indeed. In this entire list, this is the surprise sleeper: a book, which at first glance doesn’t appear to be a contender, but most certainly delivers where it counts.

7. The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel by Brandon Sample. In the world outside of prison, attorneys simply log onto Westlaw or LexisNexis when they need to search for case law. Sadly, many prison systems do not provide prisoners with access to electronic law library systems. Instead, prisoners are left to dig through case law the old fashioned way: by flipping through dense, thick volumes containing case law, and this without the aid of an attorney. The Habeas Citebook puts information desperately needed by prison litigants at their fingertips. A tremendous resource designed for prison litigants advancing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel — the most common type of post-conviction, habeas corpus proceeding — The Habeas Citebook provides prisoners with favorable case law from the United States Courts of Appeals and the United States District Courts. Both published and unpublished opinions are contained in this highly useful text, which is divided into 40 easy-reference categories. With this book at hand, prisoners don’t have to be skilled legal research experts in order to locate the case authority required to win in court on ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

BONUS: Criminal attorneys and prisoners alike should think about subscribing to Prison Legal News ( and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons ( PLN is an exceptional monthly legal publication which reports on prison law and prisoners’ rights, while JPP is more of an academic sociological journal by prisoners and for prisoners, which examines and provides insights into the life and experiences of the incarcerated.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook., Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at Federal Prison Consultants.

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