ACLU Calls out Prison Bans of “The New Jim Crow” and Other Books as “Unconstitutional”

by Vins

In prison libraries and cells across the US, the truth may not prevail, because it is being hidden from thousands of inmates. The New Jim Crow, along with thousands of other books, have been banned from correctional facilities across the country. As Jon Swaine reported for the Guardian, through a public records request, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained a list of books banned in several New Jersey prisons. Those records led the ACLU to call for lifting the book ban because it violates inmates’ rights under the First Amendment. In response to the ACLU’s campaign, officials in New Jersey and North Carolina lifted bans; however, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida prisons have persisted in banning numerous books.

According to the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the bans are intended to “ensure the safety, security and rehabilitation requirements inherent in the operation of a prison,” Thu-Huong Ha reported for Quartz.  By contrast, the books that are allowed include Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and two titles by former KKK leader David Duke, as another Guardian article on the ban, by Edward Helmore, reported.

Banning The New Jim Crow is illustrative of precisely what Michelle Alexander’s book on mass incarceration and colorblindness addressed: The contemporary criminal justice system is a modern-day twist on Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in all public facilities until 1965. As Alexander wrote in her book, “As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

Specifically, in the case of prison officials banning books available to inmates, the information in these books appears to be perceived as threatening to official power. Information in the hands of inmates may lead to challenges to the systems that oppress and incarcerate them.

During 2017-2018, the New York Times, Slate, and NBC News have all reported on book bans in prisons as unconstitutional, yet their coverage is minimal. Without the ACLU’s efforts, first to obtain records of prisons banned books lists and then to publicize those bans as unconstitutional, it is unlikely that any establishment news outlets would have bothered to cover this topic.

Sources:

Jon Swaine, “Acclaimed Book The New Jim Crow Banned in Some New Jersey Prisons,” The Guardian, January 8, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/08/new-jim-crow-banned-new-jersey-prisons.

Thu-Huong Ha, “Exactly What Gets a Book Banned from Prisons, in one US states’ spreadsheet”, Quartz, January 17, 2018, https://qz.com/1176515/exactly-what-gets-a-book-banned-from-prisons-in-one-us-states-spreadsheet/

Tess Borden and Alexander Shalom, “New Jersey Prisons’ Unconstitutional Ban on The NEW Jim Crow,” ACLU, January 8, 2018, https://www.aclu-nj.org/files/3215/1542/0412/2018_01_08_newjimcrow.pdf.

Edward Helmore, “Texas Prison Ban The Color Purple and Monty Python – but Mein Kampf is Fine,” The Guardian, December 2, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/02/texas-prisons-ban-books-mein-kampf-color-purple.

Shaun King, “ACLU Says New Jersey Prisons’ Banning of ‘The New Jim Crow’ Is Unconstitutional,” The Intercept, January 8, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/01/08/new-jim-crow-ban-prisons-nj-new-jersey-aclu/.

Student Researcher: Anabel Sosa (University of Vermont)

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)