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Prisoner rights group: Kansas prisons unfairly block books

December 3, 2019 GMT

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Department of Corrections unfairly censors publications even with the adoption of a new policy and the elimination of a banned book list, a prisoner rights groups said.

The Human Rights Defense Center has cited more than 200 books and magazines that administrators have recently blocked, including Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winner “The Overstory,” The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. Other popular books by authors such as Toni Morrison and Nora Roberts have also been intercepted.

“It turns out, not much has substantively changed,” said Michelle Dillon, a public record manager with HRDC.

In May, the center revealed that the prison system maintained a list of 7,000 banned books. Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda abolished the list after his arrival in July. He adopted a policy that allows for the review and appeal of confiscated publications earlier this year.

Randy Bowman, a department spokesman, said the policy is based on the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on obscenity.

Bowman said the policy “allows broader application of the regulation in applying contemporary community standards.”

“The Overstory” is a novel about nine Americans from different times and places who address the destruction of forests. It was banned for references to police violence. It includes a scene where authorities remove environmental activists from a logging camp.

Dillon said the decision to ban “The Overstory” makes her wonder if staff members are reading books closely or relying on a Wikipedia summary.

The “Collins World Atlas” and a Wiccan bible were banned for posing a security threat.

“So many titles on this list feel like an unfair and overly broad application of (censorship) standards,” Dillon noted, “and with so little data to back up what the perceived threat might be.”

In an open records request, HDRC found that books have been blocked for racism, drugs and manipulation.

Dillon also expressed concerns with Kansas’ appeals process. Dillon noted that inmates are required to ship books to central office staff for a secondary review, which most prisoners can’t afford to do. Of the 242 books on the HRDC list, 27 were appealed. Nine decisions were overturned, and 18 were upheld.

The HRDC’s censored materials raises questions about the balance between literary value and concerns about references to sex and violence.

“It all really begs the question of how much has actually been revised in Kansas,” Dillon said.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com