New Jersey Lifts Prison Book Ban After A.C.L.U. Calls It Unconstitutional


The department noted that the book was used by the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education Program, which allows inmates to enroll in college-level courses.

Asked why the ban was lifted, Matthew Schuman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, said it was because “officials determined that the book should not have been banned, as evidenced by the fact that it is being utilized as a teaching tool for NJ-STEP students.”

Mr. Schuman did not answer questions about why the book was banned in the first place.

Since its publication in 2010, Ms. Alexander’s book has become a well-known and frequently cited work on the subject of mass incarceration in the United States, which, it argues, has systematically devastated black America.

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Ms. Alexander in 2012. “I’m glad N.J. has lifted the ban, but it shouldn’t have existed in the first place,” she wrote in an email.

Credit
Ben Garvin for The New York Times

The book traces how the government’s war on drugs became a means of racial discrimination, and the way that African-American men in particular had been the victims of harsh sentencing policies.

The book reached the best-seller lists in 2012, after it was published in paperback, galvanizing prison reform activists as well as readers who were less aware of what Ms. Alexander argued was a crisis of injustice. (The book was informed by Ms. Alexander’s work as the director of the A.C.L.U.’s racial justice project in Northern California.)

According to data from The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group, New Jersey has the highest disparity between black and white inmates of any state, with 12.2 black inmates for every white inmate.

In response to emailed questions on Monday, Ms. Alexander said that she was “not terribly surprised” and forwarded emails indicating that the book had been banned from other prisons.

“I’m glad N.J. has lifted the ban, but it shouldn’t have existed in the first place,” she wrote. “I hope this experience will inspire people to continue to challenge unreasonable regulations and conditions of confinement. And I hope the media will pay more attention to the oppressive rules and regulations governing the lives of people who are incarcerated.”

She said that the ban had reinforced one of the key themes of the book: that mass incarceration was not at its core a system of crime prevention but instead “a system of racial and social control.”

Tess Borden, a staff lawyer for the A.C.L.U. of New Jersey, who drafted the letter with Alexander Shalom, a senior supervising lawyer, said she has spoken to people in other states who said reading Ms. Alexander’s book in prison changed their lives. It helped them see the role of racial injustice in imprisoning so many black and brown people, she said.

“It’s flatly unconstitutional under the First Amendment,” she said of the ban in an interview. “It’s also really flawed policy, especially so in New Jersey, which leads the country in racial disparities in incarceration.”

The A.C.L.U. did not immediately comment on New Jersey’s announcement that it was lifting the ban.

Federal courts have allowed prisons to censor books and it is common practice for states to keep lists of texts it considers dangerous. The Texas Department of Criminal justice, for instance, bans 10,000 titles, including “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Color Purple.”

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