The newly installed acting secretary at the Kansas Department of Corrections has eliminated a list of 7,000 books and other publications banned in state prisons.
Jeff Zmuda, chosen by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to lead the agency, replaced the list with a written policy for reviewing obscene materials and appealing any that are censored.
The new policy, effective July 30, is an attempt to turn the page on controversy over the mass censorship of materials, which was revealed in May by the Human Rights Defense Center. Critics of censorship raised concerns that Zmuda's policy change may not go far enough.
The now-abolished list of banned publications included cooking, health and tattoo magazines, self-help books, bestselling literary works, such as Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," and more scintillating titles, such as "The Happy Hooker's Guide to Sex: 69 Orgasmic Ways to Pleasure a Woman."
Zmuda outlined the new policy during an appearance before The Topeka Capital-Journal's editorial advisory board. Zmuda took control of the agency July 1 after serving as deputy secretary for the Idaho Department of Corrections.
The new policy for censoring materials that are mailed to inmates at state prisons incorporates the U.S. Supreme Court definition of obscenity and allows for a balance between sexual content and literary value.
“When I got here, I realized people were still referencing the list," Zmuda said. "I don’t know that they were referencing all of the stuff on the list, but the list still existed. I said, ‘Look, we can’t have that list as it is.’ We committed to doing something and changing that.”
Zmuda said he worked with wardens and legal counsel to change the practice of what materials get banned.
Under the new policy, mailroom employees may flag publications for review by a manager. If the manager decides to censor the publication, an inmate can appeal the decision. Publishers also are notified and can request a review. Staff at the agency headquarters would make a final decision within 20 days of appeal.
Zmuda said the agency is providing training and guidance for staff members, with a directive to "be more inclusive."
Randy Bowman, spokesman for KDOC, said the agency has handled 13 appeals through the new policy. Six decisions to censor materials were upheld, and seven decisions were reversed.
Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center, questioned whether anything will change under the new policy. He also raised concerns about the KDOC employment of senior members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka-based anti-LGBTQ hate group.
"All too often prison censorship is merely the vehicle by which bigoted, racist and reactionary government employees use state power to impose their personal views on the people in their charge under guise of prison security," Wright said.
Bowman said the agency doesn't ask its employees about religious beliefs or church members.
Michelle Dillon, a board member of the Seattle-based Books to Prisoners nonprofit, said she was cautiously optimistic about the new system for reviewing incoming books but recommended additional reform.
"Even going by our low expectations of prison systems, this list of banned books from Kansas was startling," Dillon said. "The fact that 7,000 books — many clearly innocuous by any reasonable standard — could be prohibited was a clear indication that more oversight is needed immediately."
Dillon called for the agency to allow a review committee to meet regularly to assess any flagged publications, make public any publication that was restricted, and notify senders of publications if the material is censored.
Additionally, Dillon objected to inmates being charged to appeal a decision.
Under the new policy, an inmate who wants to appeal a censorship decision has to pay for the cost of mailing the publication to KDOC headquarters for review. Alternately, an inmate can have a publication destroyed or pay to send it elsewhere.
"As our country becomes increasingly aware of the utter lack of accountability in prison systems," Dillon said, "reforms to mailroom procedures are small ways to provide improvements — and Kansas is clearly long overdue for such reforms."