A watchdog group says the Kansas prison system unfairly censors publications despite new policy and the elimination of a banned book list.
The Human Rights Defense Center has produced a list of more than 200 books and magazines that have been intercepted by administrators in recent months, including the Pulitzer Prize winner "The Overstory," by Richard Powers, and books by John Grisham, Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Nora Roberts and other popular authors.
Seattle-based HRDC in May revealed the Kansas Department of Corrections maintained a list of banned books for easy reference by mailroom staff. Corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda eliminated the list amid widespread criticism when he arrived July 1.
Zmuda installed a new policy for review that allows for consideration of literary merit. The HRDC's list of recently censored materials raises questions about the balance between literary value and concerns about references to sex and violence.
"It turns out, not much has substantively changed," said Michelle Dillon, a public record manager with HRDC.
The HRDC submitted an open records request for censored publications dating to July 1, the reason the publications were censored, and whether there was an appeal. In addition to violence and sexually explicit content, books have been blocked for racism, drugs and manipulation.
The "Collins World Atlas" and a Wiccan bible were banned for posing a security threat. The August 2019 issue of Healthy Living was censored because it contains an image of a naked infant.
Powers' "The Overstory," which is about nine Americans from different times and places who address the destruction of forests, was banned for references to police violence. The story includes a scene in which authorities remove environmental activists from a logging camp.
The book won a Pulitzer for fiction this year as "an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them."
Randy Bowman, spokesman for KDOC, said the agency policy is based on the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on obscenity. The ruling calls for consideration of whether the average person would consider a work to be obscene and whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Bowman said the policy "allows broader application of the regulation in applying contemporary community standards."
Dillon said the decision to ban "The Overstory" makes her wonder whether staff is reading books closely or simply looking at the Wikipedia summary.
"So many titles on this list feel like an unfair and overly broad application of (censorship) standards," Dillon said, "and with so little data to back up what the perceived threat might be."
Dillon also renewed concerns with the appeals process in Kansas. Inmates have to pay to ship books to central office staff for a secondary review, and most prisoners can't afford those charges, Dillon said. Of the 242 books on the HRDC list, 27 were appealed. Nine decisions were overturned, and 18 were upheld.
"It all really begs the question of how much has actually been revised in Kansas," Dillon said.