Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was a game changer. For many it shed light on an issue we may not have even realized was happening, or as strategically as it was being executed. However, for those who are actually incarcerated, it may not even be accessible.
According to The Intercept, at least two prisons in New Jersey have banned the book causing the ACLU to receive multiple complaints both from incarcerated individuals and their family members. While there is a logical reason for banning some materials in prison, banning The New Jim Crow doesn't seem to fit the criteria. The ACLU of New Jersey said the ban violated the Constitution.
“The ban on ‘The New Jim Crow’ violates the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the correlative protection of Article 1, paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution,” ACLU attorneys Tess Borden and Alexander Shalom wrote to Commissioner Gary Lanigan of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
“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 of New Jersey Executive Director Amol Sinha in a statement. “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.”
For those who aren't familiar with New Jersey prisons, the state happens to lead the nation in the racial disparity between black and white inmates. Black inmates outnumber white inmates five to one. With numbers like that, it essentially translates to African Americans making up less than 15 percent of New Jersey’s overall population while representing a staggering 60 percent of the state’s prisoners.
No wonder they would want to ban a book like this.
However, the ACLU breaks down that this is essentially a violation of prisoners' first amendment rights. ACLU attorneys wrote in a memo:
"In addressing prisoners’ First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly clarified that prison 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 on the ‘inside’. Because ‘The New Jim Crow’ addresses corrections policy and other social and political issues of public concern, it “occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection.”
As New Jersey prepares to inaugurate both a new governor, Phil Murphy (D), and its first African American lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, these are the issues they promised to address. We hope they kick their terms off by releasing an unconstitutional ban on such an important book.