You wouldn’t typically think of a bestselling author also being an ex-con, but prison provides a lot of free time for reading and writing, and sometimes that can lead to a book.
Some of the people who wrote books in prison drew on their experiences behind bars, and others wrote just as a way to occupy themselves. You’ve probably heard of most of these works or their authors, but you might not know that they were written in jail, until now.
Adolf Hitler was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the government in 1924, and began writing his autobiography behind bars. The book contains the basic elements of Hitler’s ideology, and though probably not many have read it, everyone has heard of it. Read more.
Conversations With Myself
Conversations With Myself is a collection of Nelson Mandela’s writings, many of which he composed while he was in prison. The famous South African activist was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting against apartheid. After he was finally released, he was elected president of South Africa.
The Pilgrims Progress
John Bunyan was a British Puritan who was persecuted for his religious beliefs. He spent about a decade in prison, and during his time there wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory which teaches how to live a righteous life according to Puritan values. Read more.
History of the World
Sir Walter Raleigh was well-liked by Queen Elizabeth, but her successor, King James, threw Raleigh in prison for treason when he ascended the throne. He wrote History of the World while locked in the Tower of London for 13 years.
Stories of O. Henry
William Sydney Porter was charged with embezzlement in 1895 and fled to Honduras to avoid being imprisoned. But he returned to the US when he found out that his wife was dying of tuberculosis. While in prison, he began writing his short stories. He is best known as O. Henry, his most famous pseudonym.
While Miguel de Cervantes did not actually write Don Quixote while he was in prison, he did come up with the idea while he was there. Cervantes was in debtor’s prison, but after he wrote the novel he never experienced trouble with money again.
The Travels of Marco Polo
Marco Polo is famous for traveling to the far east in the 13th century, but not as many people know that he was arrested in Genoa on his way back. He was held captive for four years, and during that time narrated his journey to his fellow prisoner, Rustichello de Pisa, who turned the stories into a book.
Henry David Thoreau only spent one night in jail, for refusing to pay a poll tax that was funding a war with Mexico, which Thoreau disapproved of. In jail, he was inspired to write perhaps his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.”
Our Lady of the Flowers
Our Lady of the Flowers is a semi-autobiographical novel which was written by Jean Genet while he was in prison. Genet spent a lot of time in prison for various charges, including theft, vagabondage, and lewd acts. Our Lady of the Flowers is about a drag queen recounting her adventures through the gay underground world of Paris.
Le Morte d’Arthur
You may not recognize the title of this book, but this is the source material where we get King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The author, Thomas Malory, was jailed for theft and rape, and wrote these tales while awaiting trial. Read more.
The House of the Dead
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is most famous for Crime and Punishment, but The House of the Dead is on our list because it was written while Dostoyevsky was serving time in a Serbian labor camp for opposing the autocratic government of Russia. The book is a gritty account of Dostoyevsky’s experience in the prison. Read more.
The Essential Gandhi
Gandhi spent a lot of time in prison for civil disobedience, and he did a lot of writing while he was in prison. The Essential Gandhi contains many works he wrote while he was behind bars.
Ezra Pound was an American expatriate who lived in Italy during World War II, expressing support for Mussolini and Hitler through radio broadcasts. When American forces invaded Italy in 1945, they arrested Pound for treason and put him in prison in Pisa. This is where he wrote his famous Pisan Cantos. They’re controversial because they’re good poetry written by a bad person.
One Day in the Life Ivan Denisovich
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn was a Red Army soldier who was arrested for writing negatively about Joseph Stalin in a private letter and was sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labor camp. He wrote about his experience in the camp, and after he was released he published his notes as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Read more.
De Profundis is one of the lesser known works of Oscar Wilde. It’s a letter written to Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the men whom Wilde had sexual relations with, expressing deep regret for his ethical misconduct. Wilde was in prison for committing “indecency” with other men.
John Cleland wrote this erotic novel while he was in debtor’s prison in London in 1748. It could be considered the first erotic novel ever written. It was also the most prosecuted and banned book in history. Read more.