New Jersey Book Ban Violates Prisoners’ First Amendment Rights
New Jersey has a sordid history when it comes to civil rights issues and prisons: The state leads the nation in racial disparity between black and white inmates, where African-Americans lead the incarceration rate 12-to-1 (in the face of a 5-to-1 national average). Perhaps most shockingly, black inmates represent 60 percent of the state’s prisoners even though they make up less than 15 percent of New Jersey’s overall population.
These statistics were recently highlighted by controversy surrounding one book that was banned in by several prisons in New Jersey (specifically, New Jersey State Prison and Southern State Correctional Facility): Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The book reportedly explains that African-Americans dominate America’s jails due to a deliberate set of policies and practices precisely designed to place them there.
Fortunately, the Department of Corrections lifted the ban once reporters covered the issue and highlighted these important constitutional and civil rights issues. Still, it is worth visiting just what First Amendment rights mean in this context, as banning books like these violates prisoners’ civil rights.
Banning Books in Prisons
The First Amendment places a high value on information contained in books like Alexander’s Mass Incarceration, information that addresses corrections policies and other social and political issues which are of concern to the public at large. Even books on drugs can only be banned if they are a “detriment” to the secure and orderly operation of the prison. Any books that involve general discussions—including critiques of the war on drugs—do not fall under this exemption.
Banning this kind of information is only lawful upon a showing that the ban is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Doing so without satisfying this high bar not only violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also New Jersey Administrative Code and Article 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. And yet, sadly, the list of books banned by the Department of Corrections goes on and on, even though it can hardly be said that doing so is necessary to maintain the security and orderly operation of the prisons.
Civil Rights & Criminal Defense Lawyers Serving New Jersey
Banning books and other information that prisoners have access to does nothing to hide the gross racial disparities in New Jersey’s prison system; disparities reflected in the day-to-day targeting activities by police, the arrest and prosecution rates, and collateral consequences, and the thousands of New Jerseyans blocked from accessing voting booths, jury service, fair housing and employment practices, and millions of other rights and benefits. Policies like these are nothing short of dangerous. Prisoners—like everyone else—are protected by the U.S. Constitution. This is one of many criminal justice reform issues New Jersey is currently facing.
If your civil rights have been violated and/or you are in need of criminal defense counseling, contact the office of Phillip J. Murphy today for a free consultation. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys have been serving New Jersey communities for more than 25 years.