Captive Nation

Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

By Dan Berger

424 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 28 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2979-7
    Published: March 2016
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-1825-8
    Published: November 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4399-9
    Published: November 2014

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

2015 James A. Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians

In this pathbreaking book, Dan Berger offers a bold reconsideration of twentieth century black activism, the prison system, and the origins of mass incarceration. Throughout the civil rights era, black activists thrust the prison into public view, turning prisoners into symbols of racial oppression while arguing that confinement was an inescapable part of black life in the United States. Black prisoners became global political icons at a time when notions of race and nation were in flux. Showing that the prison was a central focus of the black radical imagination from the 1950s through the 1980s, Berger traces the dynamic and dramatic history of this political struggle.

The prison shaped the rise and spread of black activism, from civil rights demonstrators willfully risking arrests to the many current and former prisoners that built or joined organizations such as the Black Panther Party. Grounded in extensive research, Berger engagingly demonstrates that such organizing made prison walls porous and influenced generations of activists that followed.

About the Author

Dan Berger is assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell.
For more information about Dan Berger, visit the Author Page.


"Thanks to Dan Berger's illuminating book . . . we can no longer tell the history of the black freedom struggle--and the 20th-century United States more broadly--without taking into account the organizing tradition inside prisons."--Elizabeth Hinton, The Nation

"Multidimensional analysis that takes into account feminist, queer, and multiethnic lenses."--Journal of American History

"A provocative and compelling history of black activism in the US prison system." --CHOICE

“Helps connect the broader scholarship on black freedom struggles with a largely taken for granted segment of the activist population, prisoners.”--Journal of Social History

“[An] impressive account of black prison activism.”--Public Books

“Demonstrates convincingly that historians in diverse areas and fields must reckon with [incarceration as a] defining feature of American life.”--American Historical Review

Multimedia & Links

Visit the author's website at

Follow the author on Twitter @authordanberger.

Read: An interview with the author at In These Times' blog The Prison Complex (2/24/2015)

Read: Berger writes at Al Jazeera America: "Malcolm X's Challenge to Mass Incarceration" (2/21/2015)

Read: Berger writes at Salon: "America's Fortress of Blood: The Death of George Jackson and the Birth of the Prison-Industrial Complex" (9/7/2014)

Read: Berger writes at Dissent magazine about a prison-made holiday to honor black prison activists. Read "From Freedom Summer to Black August." (8/19/2014)

Read: In an op-ed for the Seattle Times, Berger discusses the human rights crisis in American detention centers as highlighted by recent hunger strikes. (3/19/2014)