The New Jersey Department of Corrections has lifted a ban on a book that links racial discrimination and mass incarceration after the ACLU called the prohibition unconstitutional and demanded the department reverse its position.
Inmates at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont were barred from reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The ACLU New Jersey chapter made the discovery as a result of a public records request.
In a letter to the state’s Department of Corrections on Monday the ACLU demanded the book be immediately removed from any lists of banned publications.
“Keeping a book that examines a national tragedy out of the hands of the people mired within it adds insult to injury,” Amol Sinha, the state ACLU executive director, said in a statement.
A few hours later department officials responded with a statement of their own saying the DOC had reversed the ban in the two facilities and stressed that there had never been a departmentwide ban on the book.
It turns out the book is used in a college enrollment program for inmates run by the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium.
Matthew Schuman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, told The New York Times the ban was removed because “officials determined that the book should not have been banned, as evidenced by the fact that it is being utilized as a teaching tool for NJ-STEP students.”
In a statement, the Corrections Department said it is now reviewing its policy on banned materials “for appropriate revisions.”
A spokeswoman, Melanie Weiss, told NBC News that until now, the decision to ban a publication was made on a facility-by-facility basis. She said she expected that to change.
Inmates will now be allowed to challenge a facility’s decision when a book is banned. Additionally, the department admitted that “policies and procedures governing inmate publications were not consistently enforced in the past.” To correct that, it is enforcing mandatory annual staff training.
Correctional facilities around the country regularly ban books, magazines and other reading materials for a variety of reasons, including book size, construction and content.
But ACLU staff attorney Tess Borden, who drafted the letter to the New Jersey agency, argued the ban on The New Jim Crow not only violated the First Amendment but was especially egregious in the state with the worst black-to-white incarceration rate in the country.
A 2016 report by the Sentencing Project found New Jersey has the biggest gap between black and white incarceration rates of any state in the U.S. Black residents are put behind bars at 12 times the rate of white residents. Nationally, that disparity is closer to 5 to 1, the report found.
“For the state burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is ironic, misguided, and harmful. It’s also unconstitutional,” said Borden.
And, Sinha added, “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.”
In a 2012 interview on Fresh Air about the book and Alexander’s work as a legal scholar, she told NPR:
“Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. …
“I think it’s very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it. I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to ‘re-enter’ into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. … My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.”
Studies about literacy in prison have found reading is both a form of escapism for inmates during their sentences and an opportunity to improve their chances of assimilating back into society after their release.
James LaRue, the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, told the New York Times that banning books “preserves ignorance and imprisonment. All too often, prison censorship, in addition to being an arbitrary abuse of authority, denies the incarcerated the chance to get out of jail and stay out.”
Correctional facilities generally outlaw reading materials based on size (an oversize hardcover book can be used as a weapon), construction (a pop-up book, for instance, can be a good hiding place for contraband), and content (materials containing certain kinds of sexual encounters, nudity or even intimidation tactics are often prohibited).
While restrictions vary from state to state, incarcerated inmates across the country are subject to strict guidelines on what they can read.
In November the Dallas Morning News reported more than 10,000 books have been banned by the state, including the 2005 best-seller Freakonomics, which includes the theory that the drop in violent crime in the 1990s can be attributed to the legalization of abortion in 1973. The reason: This “racial content” could be construed as being “written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption.”
But David Duke’s My Awakening, which makes the case for racial segregation, and Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf are both permitted.
In 2010 North Carolina changed its inmate publication policy after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Correction, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated when prison staff denied them reading material, providing no explanation or appeals process.