ACLU blasts "unconstitutional" book ban in New Jersey prisons

"The New Jim Crow," a book on systemic racism in the criminal justice system, is also banned in North Carolina

Published January 8, 2018 1:34PM (EST)

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press/Shutterstock)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press/Shutterstock)

New Jersey has the worst disparity ratio between incarcerated black and white youth, 30 to 1 respectively. The disparity between incarcerated adults is not much better: 12 African-Americans are incarcerated for every white person imprisoned – the worst ratio in the nation. That perhaps helps to explain why Michelle Alexander's 2010 award-winning book about racial discrimination towards black Americans has lead to an epidemic of mass incarceration, "The New Jim Crow," has been banned in some New Jersey prisons.

The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned the decision for some prisons in New Jersey to ban the book as "unconstitutional and unconscionable." The book is featured on a list of reading materials prohibited for inmates to possess. The list was obtained by the ACLU after the organization received complaints about the issue,

"'The New Jim Crow' is an important work on the endemic racial bias of prison systems in the United States.1 New Jersey has the single worst Black-white racial disparity in incarceration in the country," a letter from the ACLU to the New Jersey Department of Corrections said. "For the state burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided, and harmful. It is also unconstitutional."

The letter continued, "In its worst light, it looks like an attempt to keep impacted people uninformed about the history of the very injustice that defines their daily lives."

Besides its violation of free speech, the ACLU argued it's also contradictory to the DOC's own rules because "no section of the New Jersey Administrative Code justifies censorship of The New Jim Crow," the letter said. "It is one thing to prevent incarcerated people from reading how-to manuals about lock picking; it is something altogether different to deny people access to a book that 'offers a timely and original framework for understanding mass incarceration.'"

New Jersey, however, is not entirely unique in regards to the censorship of Alexander's pivotal research. North Carolina added her seminal book on mass incarceration to its list of banned books in 2014.

In the state of Texas, a wide range of books have been banned, including material from Bob Dole, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth, The Los Angeles Times reported. However, books such as Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and David Duke's "My Awakening" are allowed. In total, 15,000 books have been banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In New York, the state's Department of Corrections has made moves to "bar visitors from bringing packages to prisoners to cut down on contraband being brought inside" facilities, the New York Daily News reported. Items would be subject to being sent to "approved secure vendors."

"Michelle Alexander’s book chronicles how people of color are not just locked in, but locked out of civic life, and New Jersey has exiled them even further by banning this text specifically for them," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha in a press release. "The ratios and percentages of mass incarceration play out in terms of human lives. Keeping a book that examines a national tragedy out of the hands of the people mired within it adds insult to injury."

By Charlie May

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