NJ Prison Ban on “The New Jim Crow” is Unconstitutional and Unconscionable

January 8, 2018

Given NJ’s worst-in-the-country disparities in incarceration, censorship of book on prison system’s racial injustice is especially shameful

Michelle Alexander dedicated her book The New Jim Crow to incarcerated individuals, but in some New Jersey prisons, policies banning the book actively prevent them from reading it.

The ACLU-NJ urged the New Jersey Department of Corrections to immediately end their unconstitutional censorship and restore access to the book, which explores the deep roots of racial discrimination and mass incarceration, in a letter sent January 8. Both New Jersey State Prison and Southern State Correctional Facility ban the book as official policy.

New Jersey’s worst-in-the-country disparity in Black-white incarceration, with Black people imprisoned at over 12 times the rate of white people, makes the ban on a book exploring the injustices and racial inequities of mass incarceration especially shameful. The ACLU-NJ in December released a roadmap for criminal justice reform in our state, A Vision to End Mass Incarceration in New Jersey, which also examined the alarming racial disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system.

“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 ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden, who drafted the letter to the Department of Corrections. “New Jersey needs to eradicate its worst-in-the-nation racial disparities, not paper them over with a banned book list, hoping that people trapped in an unfair system will remain blind to its injustices.”

The ban on The New Jim Crow amounts to censorship of speech on issues of public concern, which is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment. Prisons and jails can only ban reading materials based on legitimate penological concerns such as security issues, and cannot claim that justification applies here.

“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. “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.”

In Texas, which has deservedly received criticism for its 10,000-title list of banned reading materials, The New Jim Crow is not only allowed, but in fact included on a list of publications the state has affirmatively approved.

Governor-elect Phil Murphy has elevated the need to address New Jersey’s racial disparities as one of his chief goals for criminal justice reform in the state. The ACLU-NJ told the Department of Corrections this is all the more reason to urgently rescind the ban on The New Jim Crow as a priority in the new year and new administration.

The ACLU-NJ asked for corrective action and a response from the Department of Corrections by January 24.

(Photo by Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Categories: Prisons, Criminal Justice

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