This Book Has Been Banned By New Jersey Prisons & The ACLU Is Getting Involved

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has published a response to the New Jersey Department of Corrections's banning of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness from prisons in the state. The ACLU of New Jersey says that the ban on The New Jim Crow violates both the U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution.

In prisons across the United States, there are five black inmates for every single white inmate. Only five states have a racial disparity that is twice the national average: Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin. In New Jersey, where the disparity is at its highest, 12 black people go to prison for every incarcerated white person, in spite of the fact that only 15 percent of the state's total population is black.

That alone makes New Jersey's ban on The New Jim Crow so insidious. Describing it succinctly, ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director Amol Sinha released a statement saying that "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."

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, $12, Amazon

New Jersey is far from being the only state with bans on books for prisoners. In 2016, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned the true-crime book Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Famous Drug Cartel, for two sentences describing a common-sense way to smuggle drugs in a vehicle. New York rang in 2018 by rolling out a new set of restrictions on inmate packages that bans hoodies, fresh produce, and used books, among other items. NYC Books Through Bars, a non-profit that sends books to incarcerated New Yorkers, said in a Facebook post that:

Under the new rules, people in NY prisons can only receive books from 5 certified vendors. Those vendors offer 5 junk sex novels, 14 bibles & other religious books, 24 drawing/coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 guitar/chess/how-to books, 1 dictionary, and 1 thesaurus. That's it, folks. No other books can be sent in.

These book bans are deliberate attempts to restrict inmates' access to reading materials that help them weather through the psychological and emotional challenges of prison, challenges that must be met if a person is to be a productive member of society, post-incarceration. We tend to think of prisons as institutions of reform, so to understand why prisons would want to ban books that help inmates, it helps to bear in mind that it is in the interest of for-profit prisons, which are located or authorized in almost every U.S. state, including New Jersey, for convicted individuals to re-offend after release.

As The Intercept's Shaun King points out, however, bans on The New Jim Crow and similar books have another purpose, and that is to foster ignorance:

These types of disparities don’t happen by accident; it didn’t happen by an afterthought. The disproportionality can’t be simply chalked up to poverty. And that’s exactly what Michelle Alexander sets out to explain in “The New Jim Crow.” African Americans dominate America’s jails and prisons because a deliberate set of complex policies and practices. Often disguised as the war on drugs or even the war on poverty, these policies and practices are actually a war on black people. For instance, studies show that more white people, by both the overall rate and total numbers, sell drugs than African Americans, but African Americans are exponentially more likely to be criminally arrested and sentenced for it.

To find out more about The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, visit the book's website here.