New Jersey Lifts Prisons’ Ban On ‘New Jim Crow’ After ACLU Scrutiny

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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January 8, 2018 10:08 a.m.

Update, 1:47 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect a new statement from the New Jersey Department of Corrections reversing a ban at some prisons on “The New Jim Crow.”

The New Jersey Department of Corrections lifted a ban at some state prisons on Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” following scrutiny that began with an ACLU public records request.

In a statement reported by WHYY’s Joe Hernandez, NJDOC said it would lift book’s ban in all facilities where it had been in effect, in addition to reviewing the department’s policy and current banned books lists.

The restriction had been notable, given the book’s focus on what it characterizes as a racial caste system perpetuated through harsh drug laws and mass incarceration, even as thousands of books are banned from prisons nationwide.

Several outlets reported Monday on the open records request, and on the ACLU’s response: that the prisons were illegally blocking the book based on its content, rather than any danger or hinderance it posed to the facilities’ operation.

“It is one thing to prevent incarcerated people from reading how-to manuals about lock picking; it is something altogether different to deny people access to a book that ‘offers a timely and original framework for understanding mass incarceration,’” ACLU-NJ staff attorney Tess Borden and senior supervising attorney Alexander Shalom wrote Monday to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, quoting a review of Alexander’s book from Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP.

“The banning of a particular book such as The New Jim Crow — as compared, for example, to a ban on hardcovers — represents content-based censorship on publications,” they added later, before citing the Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley and Thornburgh v. Abbott. “Such censorship is lawful only upon a showing that the prohibition is ‘reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'”

Aside from First Amendment violations, the ACLU lawyers wrote that the ban also violated the New Jersey Administrative Code, which specifies that prisons can only ban publications containing information about drugs when the material “is detrimental to the secure and orderly operation” of the prisons.

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