Kansas prisons chief abolishes list of 7,000 banned books

Topeka — The new Kansas corrections chief has abolished a list of 7,000 books banned from state prisons and adopted a policy that allows for the review and appeal of confiscated publications.

Jeff Zmuda became the acting secretary of the state Department of Corrections last month. His policy, which became effective July 30, allows mailroom employees to flag questionable publications for review by a manager. If the manager decides to censor the publication, an inmate can appeal the decision.

“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.”

In an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board, Zmuda said he worked with wardens and legal counsel to change the practice of banning materials that are mailed to inmates at state prisons.

The list of publications not allowed in state prisons had included cooking, health and tattoo magazines, self-help books and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The new policy adheres to the U.S. Supreme Court definition of obscenity and allows for a balance between sexual content and literary value.

Inmates have filed 13 appeals so far and of those, six decisions to censor materials were upheld and seven were reversed, Corrections spokesman Randy Bowman said.

The Human Rights Defense Center revealed the mass censorship in May. Paul Wright, who heads the center, questioned the new policy’s effectiveness in driving meaningful change.

“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.

The state Senate has yet to confirm Zmuda as state prisons chief and lawmakers are not expected to reconvene until 2020.


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