Views from Kansas: Reconsider prison book ban

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has banned more than 7,000 books and publications from Kansas prisons. The list of banned publications has generated concern from the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, which acquired the list in response to an open records request.

Banned publications should be more carefully considered, by well-trained officials, to balance the educational needs of inmates with the safety of the corrections system.

It makes sense to keep some publications out of the hands of prisoners. Pornography, instructions for tattooing, guides to explosives and similar materials need to be kept out of prisons for the safety of inmates and staff.

However, the sheer number of banned publications and wide ranging content is concerning. In an environment with no internet, a ban on a publication is a complete isolation from the information it contains.

The list contains literary classics with well-established educational value. For example, Margaret Atwood’s classic “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the 1853 memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are all on the banned list.

Many books about the prison system are banned. Publications on the list include the graphic novel “Prison Grievances: When to Write, How to Write,” designed to help inmates navigate the correctional system and “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Y. Davis.

Some of the items on the list are simply head-scratching, among them, a collection of Broadway playbills, multiple art instruction books, Chris Gardner’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Pokemon game guides and multiple issues of Bloomberg Businessweek and Bon Appetit magazine.

A publication can get on the banned list if an inmate orders the book, and the Department of Corrections determines the book should not come into the prison system. Prisoners can appeal a decision they disagree with, but out of 1,622 appeals filed in the past 15 years, only 141 were successful.

As in all discussions of prisoners’ rights, it’s easy to look the other way when it comes to people who have committed crimes, but the vast majority of individuals in Kansas prisons will return to society. Their ability to reintegrate into our communities as productive citizens is partially a result of the tools we give them for success.

In response to the controversy generated by the list, including appeals from some of the authors of prohibited books, the Department of Corrections has pledged to develop a training program to teach staff about censorship standards, and reevaluate some materials. Their response is appreciated.

Kansans should expect better.

— Originally published in the Topeka Capital-Journal


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