The book was banned by New Jersey prisons, and I understand why: it showed me the injustice of our criminal justice system
When I heard that The New Jim Crow a book by Michelle Alexander about how mass incarceration in America is a new form of racial control had been banned by New Jersey prisons, I was shocked, angered and saddened. Thats the exact same way I felt when I first read the book behind bars.
At the time, I was serving a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime in a Oklahoma federal prison. Reading the book transformed my life. It made me aware that all the racial inequities and disparities caused by the war on drugs arent an accident.
Before I read The New Jim Crow, I thought it was normal that people in my neighborhood were routinely pulled over, searched, arrested and sent to jail. Just about everyone I met in prison was either black or brown, but that didnt seem unusual to me. Nor did the fact that we were serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes while white people were doing far less time for far more serious crimes.
The New Jim Crow showed me there was nothing normal about that at all. There was nothing normal about the fact that I had seen black and brown fathers locked in prison so long that their sons grew up to be men in their absence men who would often go on to be arrested themselves and sent to the same prison cells as their fathers.
The book put my personal experiences into a bigger perspective for me. It taught me that there are more African Americans under correctional control (in jails, prison, parole, probation) now than were enslaved before the start of the US civil war. And more African Americans are disenfranchised today due to felony convictions than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment which prohibits laws denying African Americans the right to vote on the basis of their race was ratified.
With AfricanAmericans and Latinos making up nearly 60% of the prison population but only 30% of the US population, it is hard to deny that mass incarceration is racially motivated, as the book persuasively argues.
This realization inspired me to start my own grassroots organization called Crack Open the Door, an organization I dedicated to freeing first time non-violent crack cocaine offenders serving life without parole.
To further this cause, I reached out to civil rights organizations, men and women in Congress, reporters but no one answered my cries for help. Thats when I contacted Alexander, the author of the book that had set everything in motion.
Alexander responded and said she believed in my cause. If there was ever a more egregious consequence from the war On drugs, it was, in her view, the sentencing of people to life without parole for non-violent offenses.
She then connected me with the American Civil Liberties Union, which produced a report on life without parole in the United States, in which I was featured. The report was released in November 2013, and I was granted clemency a month later.
The New Jersey prison system never offered a reason for why they banned The New Jim Crow, a decision which they undid after an outcry this week. The state administrative code allows prisons to ban a publication, among other reasons, if it may result in the outbreak of violence. Did reading the New Jim Crow make me mad? Im not going to lie: it did. Did it make me want to fight? Yes, it did. But it made me want to fight not with my fist but with my mind, my heart.
Thanks to the book, I have dedicated my life to fighting for freedom. Not just my own, which I now have obtained, but that of others serving life sentences. People who are blind to the fact as I once was that the war on drugs was never against drugs, but against people of color.
Perhaps that is the reason why prisons banned the book: because of its power.
- Jason Hernandez is the founder of Crack Open The Door, which advocates for nonviolent crack cocaine offenders serving life without parole
- This article was amended on 10 January 2017 to clarify that the New Jersey prison system did not offer a reason for why they banned the New Jim Crow.