National News

Why Are American Prisons So Afraid of This Book?

Posted January 18, 2018 2:58 p.m. EST

In the eight years since its publication, “The New Jim Crow,” a book by Michelle Alexander that explores the phenomenon of mass incarceration, has sold well over a million copies, been compared to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, been cited in the legal decisions to end stop-and-frisk and sentencing laws, and been quoted passionately on stage at the Academy Awards.

But for the more than 130,000 adults in prison in North Carolina and Florida, the book is strictly off-limits.

And prisoners around the country often have trouble obtaining copies of the book, which points to the vast racial disparities in sentencing policy, and the way that mass incarceration has ravaged the African-American population.

This month, after protests, New Jersey revoked a ban some of its prisons had placed on the book, while New York quickly scrapped a program that would have limited its inmates’ ability to receive books at all.

Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and former clerk on the Supreme Court, said the barriers to reading the book are no accident.

“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,” she said. “Perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.”

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed that the book had been banned but would not elaborate. A form from the prison system’s literature review committee obtained by The New York Times indicates that the book was rejected because it presented a security threat and was filled with what the document called “racial overtures.”

In North Carolina prisons, “The New Jim Crow” has been banned multiple times, most recently on Feb. 24, 2017, when it was deemed “likely to provoke confrontation between racial groups.” State policy dictates that such bans can last for only a year, so the book will be permitted in the state’s prisons late next month — unless it is banned again.

“All you need is one prison to challenge it, and then the book goes back on the list,” said Katya Roytburd, a volunteer with Prison Books Collective, a nonprofit that sends free books to prisoners in North Carolina and Alabama.

The central thesis of “The New Jim Crow” is that the mass incarceration of black people is an extension of the American tradition of racial discrimination. It zeroes in on how the “law and order” rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s led to the war on drugs and harsh law enforcement and sentencing policies, which disproportionately affect black people.

“It is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt,” she writes in the introduction. “So we don’t. Rather than rely on race we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Black people are still imprisoned at over five times the rate of white people, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group. And while a bipartisan push for sentencing reform took place during President Barack Obama’s second term, those efforts have stalled under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

The choices prisons make when banning books can seem arbitrary, even capricious. In Texas, 10,000 titles are banned, including such head-scratchers as “The Color Purple” and a compilation by the humor writer Dave Barry. “Mein Kampf,” on the other hand, is permitted, along with several books by white nationalists, despite the existence of prison gangs like the murderous Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

“When you look at the banned book lists and specifically the stuff that’s being allowed, there’s a definite bias toward violent armed white supremacy and the censorship of anything that questions the existing religious or political status quo,” said Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center.

Activists see bans as an indictment of how prisoners are limited more broadly. Amy Peterson, a member of NYC Books Through Bars,which sends books to inmates in 40 states, said books were often sent back with little explanation.

“It does seem very much up to the person in the shipping room who’s making these arbitrary decisions,” she said. “I see it as one of the many ways that people are deprived of basic rights in prison.”

But for many incarcerated people, the ban on “The New Jim Crow” does not seem arbitrary. In 2014, Dominic Passmore, a prisoner in Michigan, ordered the book after checking to make sure that it had not been banned in the state. When it arrived, according to state documents, the prison’s mailroom staff refused to give it to him, citing its racial content.

Months later, after a series of appeals, the state decided that Passmore could read the book but informed him that he would have to buy a new copy, as it had misplaced his.

Passmore, who spent nine years behind bars after pleading no contest to armed robbery charges when he was 14, eventually read the book. He said that it opened his eyes to the wrongs done to black people.

“I feel like the reason why they tried to reject it is because they didn’t want me to have that kind of knowledge,” said Passmore, who was recently released. Prison officials almost universally agree that certain books should be prohibited. Roger Werholtz, who served as secretary of corrections in Kansas and as interim executive director of corrections in Colorado, said that books that could interfere with safety, like instructions on how to pick locks or make weapons, or those that could incite disturbances, such as racist or white supremacist literature, were banned under his watch.

He said that he did not think banning Alexander’s book for its arguments about race made sense.

“I would be pretty skeptical of that,” he said. “That’s not anything that you don’t see in the newspaper. Frankly, most prison officials talk very openly about the overrepresentation of minorities.”

Jason Hernandez, 40, was a 21-year-old first-time, nonviolent drug offender when he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Hernandez studied law in prison and filed his own appeals, only to see them denied. In 2010, he borrowed “The New Jim Crow” from the prison’s library lending program.

It inspired him to start a grass-roots organization to help himself and other nonviolent drug offenders with life sentences. In September 2011, he appealed directly to Obama for clemency. His request was granted and he was released in 2015.

“They prevent books from going in there that could maybe help people escape,” he said. “This is what this book did for me, and what it’s done for hundreds of others.”