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Prisons are making new moves to control what books inmates can read

The book “The New Jim Crow,” about the mass incarceration of African Americans, was banned in two New Jersey prisons. But after a challenge by the ACLU, prisoners across the state will be able to read it.

NBC News reports that Michelle Alexander's “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” had been banned from New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, a decision which drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The book, published in 2010, argues that African Americans are unfairly targeted by the “War on Drugs,” and are more likely to face jail time for criminal offenses. The result, according to Alexander, is a de facto system of racial segregation.

In a letter to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the ACLU of New Jersey wrote, “For the state burdened with this systemic in justice to prohibit prisoners from reading a book about race and mass incarceration is grossly ironic, misguided, and harmful. It is also unconstitutional.”

The Department of Corrections emphasized that only two of its prisons had banned the book, and noted that the book was “taught in a college-level course made available to prisoners.”

New Jersey isn't the only state to come under fire for banning books in prisons. A new directive in New York has made it difficult for prisoners there to receive books from people outside their facilities, ThinkProgress reports.

Under the policy, which is being implemented as a pilot program, prisoners would only be able to receive packages from an approved list of vendors — friends, family and other entities, such as nonprofits, would not be able to send them any packages, including books.

There are very few titles available. The first five of eight approved vendors on the list offered just 78 books in total: “five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus.”

The state's policy was criticized by Books Through Bars, a nonprofit group that sends free books to prisoners. In a letter to New York's governor and its acting department of corrections commissioner, the group pointed out that under the policy, prisoners would have access to “no books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. ... No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls.”

ThinkProgress notes that a sixth vendor has been added, but says that its catalog is as yet unavailable to prisoners in New York. Two other vendors are expected to be added to the list; it's unclear whether they will offer a greater selection of books; however, on Monday, the nonprofit group Prisoners Literature Project said that one of the new vendors does indeed offer more books.

On Tuesday morning, the author and artist Molly Crabapple, who had blasted the restrictions in a thread of tweets, said on Twitter that “Since I posted the first tweet in this thread ... several approved vendors have been added to the list, with a more expansive catalog of books.”

However, PEN America, which has run a national prison writing program for 40 years, described the New York directive as a “ruinously over-broad restriction on inmates’ ability to access published materials” and called on the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “to promote moral and responsible prison policies that uphold inmates’ access to information and safeguard the right to read.”

In a statement, New York's corrections department said “it is patently false to suggest that individuals in ... custody will not have access to books, magazines, or other literature.”

The state's directive goes beyond books. Under the new rules, prisoners will no longer be able to receive fresh produce or gifts from visitors, according to ThinkProgress.

Debates about prisoners' access to books are ongoing nationally. In 2016, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was criticized after it was revealed that it had banned 15,000 books from its prisoners, including works by Bob Dole, Jenna Bush Hager, Alice Walker and John Grisham.

Books by David Duke and Adolf Hitler, however, were not banned from Texas prisons.

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