Victories scored against New York and New Jersey prison book bans

By Brian Williams
January 29, 2018

Authorities have been implementing a pilot program at several state prisons in New York that severely limits access to books prisoners or their friends and families can order for them to read. As more facts about it have come to light and condemnations mounted, Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted Jan. 12, “I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates.”
At the same time, after protests by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, New Jersey state officials were forced Jan. 8 to revoke a ban they had placed on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The title had been banned at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont.

In New York, a test Secure Vendors Program was put in place Dec. 4 at the Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic prisons that severely restricts the availability of books. Anyone who wants to order a book for a prisoner has to choose from only six vendors — E-Ford Commissary, Access Securepak, Union Supply Group, Jack L. Marcus Company, Walkenhorst, and Music by Mail. Shipments of new and used books from other mail catalogs or online retailers are barred. Officials planned to expand the program statewide in September.

The approved vendors offer a combined selection of just 77 books: “five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary and one thesaurus,” reports Addy Baird of the ThinkProgress news website.

The Department of Correctional and Community Services claims the measure will “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities.”

Supporters of prisoners’ rights fought to overturn the decision. Gov. Cuomo’s announcement “is welcome news not only for incarcerated individuals in New York State and their families,” PEN America, which advocates for writers and readers worldwide, said in a Jan. 12 press release, “but for all those who are concerned about the right to read.”

“This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people,” NYC Books Through Bars, which sends free books to prisoners in dozens of states, said in a letter to Gov. Cuomo.

In New Jersey Jan. 8 state prison authorities said they were lifting the ban on The New Jim Crow at all state institutions. They also said they would review their overall policy under which other books are still prohibited.

“The ban on The New Jim Crow violates the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the ACLU said in a letter delivered to Department of Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan earlier that day.

Noting that African-Americans disproportionately fill New Jersey prisons, the ACLU wrote, “For the state burdened with this systemic injustice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided and harmful.”

The victories in New York and New Jersey — as well as the Militant’s victory overturning the impoundment of an issue in Florida state prisons (see article on front page) — are good precedents for the ongoing fight to allow prisoners to join in today’s political discussions and debates.