In the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the nameless black male protagonist says, “When I discover who I am, I will be free.” He spends the novel falling down a dizzying racial rabbit hole that bit by bit reveals for the reader the plight facing a black man in America. It’s a horrifying and honest book, one that is an eloquent sermon on the necessity to stay quote on quote “woke.”
Books like Ellison’s are eye opening, and for some even liberating, because of what they reveal about the inner workings of our society. It’s also a book that has a history of being banned.
So it’s really hard not to see the irony in a prison banning a book like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book by Michelle Alexander, which draws a sharp comparison between the Jim Crow era disenfranchisement through discrimination and the kind of “constraints” that are placed on a modern day felon, was banned from at least New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont — according to documents obtained by the ACLU. After a complaint from the ACLU, the New Jersey Department of Corrections on Monday reversed the ban, which it said was put in place by the facilities and not the department itself.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander exposes the extent of racial bias and illustrates how once a person is considered a felon, they can be discriminated against in essentially all the same ways that were perfectly legal under Jim Crow. Felons are locked out of public housing and employment opportunities, and not to mention they are often placed under a degraded public opinion.
Alexander’s book possesses the power to radically alter the way a reader views the many layers within our criminal justice system. It’s the kind of book that challenges the oppressor head on. This book could arm a current person in the system with the tools to understand the systemic issues they are up against.
In a letter to state corrections officials, ACLU attorney Tess Borden called attention to the irony and disenfranchisement a ban of this kind of literature can foster. “For the state to burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided, and harmful,” she wrote.
The New Jim Crow is once again allowed in the two New Jersey prisons, after uproar from the ACLU and the general public, but other books were also noted in the ban. Some of those titles include The World of Fire and Ice from the Game of Thrones series, The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith, which chronicles the eventual capture of El Chapo, and The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo, which details the story of American serial killer Richard Ramirez.
And it’s not just New Jersey; prisons across the country have controversial book bans in place. A new policy in New York will permit inmates from receiving all but 98 books. Of those 98, 24 are coloring books. In December, 10,000 books were banned from prisons in Texas. Some of those books included Memoirs of Geisha, The Color Purple, and other more consciousness-awakening non-fiction titles like Freakonomics. However, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler is allowed.
Banned books vary year to year and county to county. At one point it was so bad in a South Carolina jail, that they managed to ban everything save for the the Holy Bible until the ACLU got involved.
Some complain that it feels arbitrary which books wind up banned, like Where’s Waldo or even some plays by William Shakespeare, but when titles like Alexander’s The New Jim Crow appear on the list, arbitrary couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s been long argued that certain books are kept out of prisons to ensure the overall safety of the inmates, the staff, and the prison itself. But the move to ban books likes these, which are about revealing the insidious truth that has corroded the criminal justice system, feels hypocritical at best and a move to further keep a prisoner imprisoned at worst.
“This is a tiny win in a much larger battle, that we look forward to fighting together with the Department of Corrections,” Tess Borden said by phone to ThinkProgress. Borden also stressed that while this ban has been lifted, the racial disparity among New Jersey’s prison population (which is the largest racial disparity in the country) remains.
This piece has been updated to reflect an interview with Tess Borden.