New Jersey lifts prison ban on ‘The New Jim Crow,’ a popular book on mass incarceration

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has lifted a ban on the book “The New Jim Crow” at two of its prisons, following a complaint from the state chapter of the ACLU.

Listen 2:10
New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. (David Keddie/Wikimedia Commons)

[Updated: 2:32 p.m.]

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has lifted a ban on the book “The New Jim Crow” at two of its prisons, following a complaint from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Documents obtained through a public records request by the ACLU-NJ showed that, as of 2014, the title has been on the “watch list” of prohibited books at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont.

The group sent a letter to the NJDOC Monday morning, demanding that the state lift what it called an unconstitutional ban on “The New Jim Crow” and conduct a review of policies around prohibiting publications in state prisons.

Written by attorney and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, the 2010 best seller shows how drug laws and harsh sentencing rules across the U.S. have put a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, relegating them to a “permanent second-class status,” according to the book’s website.

In a statement, a spokesman said the NJDOC would lift the ban and review the department’s policy on banning books, as well as its current lists of prohibited publications.

“Significantly, ‘The New Jim Crow’ is being utilized as a teaching tool in the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education Program (NJ-STEP), through which NJDOC inmates enroll in college-level courses while incarcerated,” the statement read.

Earlier Monday morning, Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the ACLU-NJ, said banning this book in particular showed the NJDOC wanted inmates to remain ignorant about the racial discrimination in the American justice system.

Borden added that prohibiting “The New Jim Crow” was particularly problematic in a state that incarcerates African-Americans at a rate 12 times higher than whites, the largest black-white disparity in the U.S.

“In its best light, this says that the DOC is burying its head in the sand,” said Borden. “In the worst light, it looks like an attempt to keep prisoners uninformed.”

It is unclear whether the book was banned at any of the state’s seven other adult correctional facilities.

New Jersey law gives corrections officers wide latitude in banning publications they deem unfit for inmates.

According to the state administrative code, a book or magazine can be withheld if “it incites violence based upon race, religion, creed or nationality and a reasonable inference can be drawn, based upon the experience and professional expertise of correctional administrators, that it may result in the outbreak of violence within the facility.”

Prisons typically bar inmates from having publications that contain information about weapons, escape plans, lockpicking, as well as some sexual content. Workers in the prison mailroom can intercept banned books and magazines before they get to inmates, or guards can confiscate them from cells.

The security risk of a publication must outweigh the First Amendment right of prisoners to read — and Borden said that test failed in the case of “The New Jim Crow.”

“While Michelle Alexander’s book is certainly enraging and mobilizing, I don’t think DOC can legitimately claim that it raises any kind of security risk,” she said.

A 2014 memo from prison administrator Sherry Yates outlined some of the banned publications, including the magazines Maxim and XXL, as well as Parents Magazine and “A Game of Thrones,” by George R. R. Martin.

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, who takes office on Jan. 16th, announced Friday that he was reappointing Gary Lanigan as Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

Photo by David Keddie/Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: When this story was published, the ban on the book “The New Jim Crow” had not yet been lifted. It has since been updated to reflect the news.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal