The North Carolina prison system agreed on Tuesday to remove an award-winning book about mass incarceration and discrimination against African-Americans in the justice system from its banned book list.
The news came amid pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, which described the ban as “shameful,” “wrong,” and “unconstitutional.”
Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, sent a letter to Jane Gilchrist, an attorney for the state Department of Public Safety, contending that such a ban violates the First Amendment rights of prisoners, as well as the department’s own policies.
The book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was written by Michelle Alexander. Cornel West, a champion for racial justice, described Alexander’s work in a foreword to her book as the “secular bible for a new social movement in early twenty-first-century America.”
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West said the book takes its readers beyond such breakthroughs as the election of President Barack Obama, the first black president, “to the systemic breakdown of black and poor communities devastated by mass unemployment, social neglect, economic abandonment, and intense police surveillance. Her subtle analysis shifts our attention from the racial symbol of America’s achievement to the actual substance of America’s shame: the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and, increasingly, female) young people in the name of a bogus ‘War on Drugs.’”
Since the book’s publication in 2010, more than a million copies have been sold. Its premise: Decades after the eradication of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in the South, many African Americans continue to face discrimination inside the nation’s prisons.
Jerry Higgins, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon announcing the change, a day after Brook sent a letter outlining the ACLU’s concerns.
“Upon receipt, the department responded to the ACLU that it would look into the matter,” Higgins said. “As of today, the director of Prisons has decided to immediately remove the book titled ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ by Michelle Alexander from the Disapproved Publications Report. The director will be reviewing the entire list to determine whether any other books will be removed from the report.”
North Carolina’s decision comes nearly two weeks after New Jersey took a similar action under similar pressure from the ACLU.
African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of white people, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for prison reform.
Alexander recently told the New York Times: “Some prison officials are determined to keep the people they lock in cages as ignorant as possible about the racial, social and political forces that have made the United States the most punitive nation on earth.”
“Perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.”
“For North Carolina – a state with such stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system – to keep a book about racial injustice away from those incarcerated is not just shameful and wrong. It’s also unconstitutional,” Brook said in a statement on Tuesday before prison officials removed the book from the list. “Michelle Alexander’s book shines a light on the pervasive racial injustice behind America’s epidemic of mass incarceration. North Carolina officials must lift the state’s ban immediately.”
In North Carolina, Brook said, black people make up 52 percent of the state’s prison population while representing only 22 percent of the statewide population, according to 2016 U.S. census data.
“Barring The New Jim Crow from our state’s prisons because it shines a light on a harsh reality confronted every day by Black prisoners in North Carolina is not only indefensible as a matter of constitutional rights, DPS policy, and logic but also cruelly ironic,” Brook stated in his letter to Gilchrist.
Under North Carolina prison regulations, officials can prohibit inmates from receiving publications that threaten the safety of prisoners or staff.
“No publication or material will be withheld solely on the basis of its appeal to a particular ethnic, racial or religious group. A publication may not be rejected solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant,” according to state policy. “Publications that provide unbiased reporting of actual news and events are not normally withheld.”
Some of the publications on the list in 2014 and 2015 included “The New York Times Essential Guide to Knowledge,” “Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A.” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” numerous tattoo books, encyclopedias on a variety of topics, erotica and many magazines.
Higgins noted that some books are banned, not for their content, but because of their size. Under prison policy, hardbound publications, other than legal or religious publications, that are larger than 8 ½ x 11 or more than two inches thick are not allowed. However, large softbound publications (such as ESPN Magazine and The Sporting News) are allowed.
“Hardbound legal or religious publications larger than “8 ½ x 11” or more than 2 inches thick are allowed unless the facility head identifies a specific security threat or storage issue caused by the inmate’s possession of the publication,” the policy states.
“We appreciate the prompt response and are glad that officials have agreed to review the entire list of banned books, as they should,” Brook said later on Tuesday. “We will continue to safeguard the First Amendment rights of people incarcerated in North Carolina. Everyone in our state would do well to read “The New Jim Crow” so that together we can work to undo the racial injustice that permeates our criminal justice system.”