By: Jane’a Johnson
On January 10th, the New Jersey prisons reversed a ban on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, after a letter from the New Jersey ACLU challenged the ban.
With a little reflection, it isn’t hard to see the bitter irony of banning prisoners from reading a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a book that argues that mass incarceration targets African-Americans in order to keep them in an inferior position both socially and economically. These men and women are made “socially dead,” to borrow a phrase from famed sociologist Orlando Patterson.
Prisons, however, are allowed to ban books. Full stop. They can justify banning certain titles based on the safety of inmates and employees without violating the Constitution.
But if prisons target African-Americans and those same prisons want to ban a book that describes in great detail how and why they have been targeted based on the safety of inmates and employees, it raises the question: why — and for whom — is it unsafe to educate inmates about their condition?
One study, cited by The New York Times, found that inmates who participate in educational programs are far less likely to return to prison than those who are not. The general mandate which allows books to be banned based on safety echoes another institution that abhorred reading and went to great lengths to keep its victims illiterate. In the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass’ master argued that reading “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” If prison is the new Jim Crow, and slavery was the old Jim Crow, then the freedom (or unfreedom) to read is one of many common threads that connect all of these systems, and it ought to be acknowledged.
What does it mean, then, to read in the age of social media and must-see TV? No, not to simply pronounce words and know what they mean, but read, the kind of reading that the New Jersey prisons wanted to ban? What is banned — what is challenged — rather than what is allowed to go before our eyes again and again without so much as a passing gasp, can give us a clue. To read is to see the world around you for what it is and to lift the veil of ignorance, not to merely mutter words and understand definitions.
This is an important reminder that the Bill of Rights and constitutional rights, including the First Amendment, are not absolute and can be restricted by the government if certain criteria are met. In this case, a criterion as deliberately vague as safety can provide cover for restricting access to a book which is tantamount to mirror.
The New Jersey administrative code authorizes correctional facilities to withhold publications that are “detrimental to the secure and orderly operation of the correctional facility.” Information on explosives, weapons, and escape plans are prohibited. Listed alongside these prohibitions is an abstract catch-all that prohibits, “anything that might pose a threat to the security or orderly operation of the correctional facility.” The ACLU was able to argue that the The New Jim Crow did not pose a threat to order, not that reading materials cannot be restricted for prisoners. But the The New Jim Crow is absolutely a threat to order, an order of a far different class, that goes beyond the material operations of one prison. The book challenges the notion of the prison itself, and its express reasons for existing. In other words, The New Jim Crow, regardless of the nuances of its argument or whether one agrees entirely with its premise, is reading in its purest form.
Jane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.