New Jersey state prisons have ended a ban that prevented inmates from reading a highly praised book that links racial discrimination and mass incarceration.
Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness had been off limits to inmates as a matter of policy at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, according to documents provided in response to a public records request from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The state Department of Corrections lifted the ban after the ACLU chapter on Monday demanded that access to the book be granted to inmates in the state, which the group said has the worst U.S. black-white incarceration disparity.
“The New Jim Crow chronicles how people of color are shut out of society by mass incarceration,” the letter states. “That the very prisoners who experience the worst racial disparity in incarceration in the country should be prohibited from reading a book whose precise purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity adds insult to injury.”
The Department of Corrections responded Monday afternoon by lifting the ban on the book at all state institutions, and said it would review the department’s policy on prohibiting books. The department noted in a statement that The New Jim Crow has been used a teaching tool in a college-level course for inmates.
Amol Sinha, the state ACLU executive director, said Alexander’s book shows “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.”
“The ratios and percentages of mass incarceration play out in terms of human lives,“ Sinha said in a statement. “Keeping a book that examines a national tragedy out of the hands of the people mired within it adds insult to injury.”
Black residents in New Jersey are incarcerated at a rate roughly 12 times the rate of white residents. The letter, addressed to state Department of Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan, says “every player in the criminal justice system” should be taking steps to reduce racial disparities.
“The ban on The New Jim Crow does precisely the opposite and is a step backwards instead. In its worst light, it looks like an attempt to keep impacted people uninformed about the history of the very injustice that defines their daily lives,” the letter states.
In the preface, Alexander writes that she wrote the book for “all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up or locked outside of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.”
ACLU attorney Tess Borden, who drafted the letter, said it was “ironic, misguided, and harmful” for a state “burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration.”
“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,” Borden said.
This article has been updated to include a response from the state Department of Corrections.
Read the letter below.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at (202) 527-9261.