It’s better, but not good enough. The Kansas Department of Corrections still has some work to do on their censorship policies. The policies came to light this summer when the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center released a list of more than 7,000 books and publications banned from Kansas prisons.
Corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda, who took office on July 1, took a step in the right direction by eliminating the list, accumulated over the course of many years. The elimination of the list was a positive step and would have ideally allowed officials to start fresh with stronger guidance about balancing explicit content with literary value.
The need for balance was well-illustrated by the original list. Literary classics “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the 1853 memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” were all on the previous list. The books contained explicit content but also well-established educational value.
The new list has quickly accumulated more than 200 books and magazines. Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” is on the list for depictions of police violence, but the book has also garnered significant acclaim and a Pulitzer prize for fiction. The plot of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” includes child rape, but is also considered one of Morrison’s most important works. We must find a way to balance the literary merit of publications with the very real need for public safety.
Some publications, like those that pose a threat to the security of our prisons or safety of their staff, should be kept out of the hands of prisoners, but banning a publication from a prison is significant. Prisoners do not have internet access. A ban on a publication completely eliminates the information contained in that publication. It’s easy to dismiss the wants of those who have committed crimes against the public, but reading in prison is not just about entertainment. Access to educational opportunities gives prisoners the tools they need to change their lives. A book can be a window to a world of new perspectives and ideas. The vast majority of people in Kansas prisons will be released back into our neighborhoods and communities.
It is in the best interests of the public to have them as well-prepared as possible for life on the outside of prison walls.
There is an appeals process for banned publications, but it requires inmates to pay to ship the materials to a central office. Any inmate unable to pay for the shipping is unable to appeal the material. The department is understandably concerned about expenses, but the policy has the impact of limiting appeals to inmates with financial resources, and should be reconsidered.
The Department of Corrections should rethink the appeals process, and find a way to more carefully evaluate materials. The department has headed in the right direction, but the process still needs work.