Controversial New Jim Crow Ban Lifted

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The ACLU of New Jersey Successfully Challenges the New Jersey Correctional System’s Ban on Access to The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s Seminal Work on Race and Mass Incarceration  

New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont banned The New Jim Crow as a matter of policy, according to documents provided in response to a public records request from the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. As widely reported, ACLU attorney Tess Borden sent a letter (read a PDF of the ACLU-NJ's letter here) to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections challenging the ban as both a violation of the New Jersey Department of Corrections Administrative Code and unconstitutional.

In her letter, Borden cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Thornburgh v. Abbott (which in turn quotes from a previous decision in Turner v. Safly), concluding that “‘[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,’” nor do they bar free citizens from exercising their own constitutional rights by reaching out to those inside. As a result of the ACLU complaint, the ban was lifted and New Jersey prisoners won the right to read Michelle Alexander’s book. (Ironically, educational courses in the same prison system were already using The New Jim Crow as an academic text.)    

Michelle Alexander responded to the controversy online: “Valuable books are still banned at many prisons nationwide. Prison officials frequently deny basic civil and human rights because they think no one is watching and no one cares what happens behind bars. I hope the media will begin to pay a lot more attention to the routine denial of constitutional rights. Banning books is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. We have the largest, most punitive penal system in the world and yet the media rarely scrutinizes what actually happens behind prison walls.”

The ruling drew national attention and propelled the book back onto the New York Timespaperback bestseller list at the #10 spot for the week of January 21.

Articles on the case include:

Swaine, Jon.  "Acclaimed Book The New Jim Crow Banned in Some New Jersey Prisons." The Guardian. January 8, 2018

Bromwich, Jonah Engel. Mueller, Benjamin.  "Ban on Book About Mass Incarceration Lifted in New Jersey Prisons After A.C.L.U. Protest." New York Times.  January 8, 2018

Reilly, Ryan.  "New Jersey Prisons End Ban on The New Jim Crow After ACLU Protests." Huffington Post. January 8, 2018

Romo, Vanessa. "Under Fire from ACLU, New Jersey Reverses Ban on Book About Mass Incarceration." January 8, 2018

Da Silva, Chantal. "New York Prisons Impose “Draconian” Rules Limiting Books Inmates Can Read to “Sex Novels, Bibles, and Coloring Books.” Newsweek. January 9,  2018

Hernandez, Jason. "I Read The New Jim Crow in Jail. It Changed My Life." The Guardian.  January 10, 2018

Bromwich, Jonah Engel.  "Why Are American Prisons So Afraid of This Book?New York Times.  January 18, 2018