Kansas Prisoners Banned From Reading 'A Game of Thrones' Along With Thousands of Other Books

Men wearing neon-colored jail clothes signifying immigration detainees walk to pick up their lunches at the Theo Lacy Facility, a county jail which houses convicted criminals as well as immigration detainees, March 14, 2017 in Orange, California, about 32 miles (52km) southeast of Los Angeles. In Kansas prisons, thousands of books have made a ban list drawn by the Kansas Department of Corrections. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty

From Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, thousands of books have been banned from entering Kansas' state prisons over the last two decades, with hundreds added to the list of "censored" literature over the last two years.

Sharing the Kansas Department of Correction's banned book list on Twitter, Books to Prisoners, an organization that facilitates book donations to prisons, called the sheer number of books banned in detention facilities across the state "unbelievable."

"We just received the banned books list from KDOC and it's unbelievable," Books to Prisoners, which obtained the list with the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), stated, before pointing that there are nearly as many banned books as there are prisoners at Kansas detention facilities.

We just received the banned books list from KDOC & it's unbelievable. Kansas has fewer than 10,000 prisoners, yet more than 7,000 books are banned for them, from "A Clockwork Orange" to "Are Prisons Obsolete?"

RT with the most absurd book you find! https://t.co/8JDgrM4NLU

— Books to Prisoners (Seattle) (@B2PSeattle) May 29, 2019

"Kansas has fewer than 10,000 prisoners, yet more than 7,000 books are banned for them, from A Clockwork Orange to Are Prisoners Obsolete," the organization said.

"Kansas... it just seems like they hate books," Books to Prisoners organizer and Public Records Manager at the HRDC Michelle Dillon told Newsweek in a phone interview.

In her seven years working with Books to Prisoners, Dillon said she had "never seen a list like this, except in Texas," where she said officials have banned as many as 15,000 books.

According to the list shared by Books to Prisoners, in 2019 alone, the Kansas Department of Corrections has seen dozens of books banned. These include Ron Stallworth's memoir Black Klansman, which inspired Spike Lee's 2018 BlacKkKlansman film about how Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, infiltrated a local Ku Klux Klan branch.

Other notable books censored over the years include Soloman Northup's 12 Years A Slave, E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, Neil Gaiman's American Gods and dozens of James Patterson novels.

At least 60 "how-to" books also made the ban list, including How To Make Small Talk by Melissa Wadsworth, How To Paint & Draw by Hazel Harrison, How To Analyze People by Aiden McCoy, How to Disappear by Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan and How To Survive Anything, Anywhere by Chris McNab.

The list also includes a number of banned coloring books, newsletters, comic books, including a number of Marvel and DC comics, role-playing manuals for games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder and magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Allure, Elle, Art in America, Hot Bike and Hooters.

While some of the books likely made the banned list due to references of violence, such as Vince Flynn's Consent to Kill, social media users were quick to point out how innocuous many of the books, magazines and graphic novels appear to be. These include Klaus Honnef's book on Contemporary Art and a "Step by Step" guide on how to use Microsoft Office Excel 2007.

Dillon said prison book bans tend to vary from state to state, with more conservative states tending to see greater censorship.

In the case of Kansas prisons, Dillon said: "Well, that's Kansas, right? They traditionally have had some serious problems with conservatism and contradictions within their own treatment of people within the state."

However, she said "the more general problem with books in prisons is that there's not a lot of oversight" when it comes to prison literature restrictions, leading to "censorship that's happening on a grand scale."

"The difficulties come down to no accountability, no oversight and very vague policies that allow for a lot of interpretation," Dillon said.

For organizations like Books to Prisoners, the lack of clear guidelines makes determining what literature can and cannot be sent out to prisoners a difficult and time-consuming task. "It's like trying to read the stars, you know? Is the moon waning? Is it a Tuesday in February? Okay, then we can send this atlas," she said.

Atlases, she added, are also commonly rejected by prisons, including maps of imaginary places, like Westeros in A Game of Thrones.

With George R.R. Martin's popular books, Dillon said, it may not even be the "violence or sexual content" that will get his novels banned from prisons, "but it's also because of the maps because, you know, somehow it could lead to a prisoner escaping to Westeros."

Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said in a statement sent to Newsweek that decisions on which books to censor are made based on pre-established criteria.

"If one item within a publication meets the criteria, then the entire publication must be censored as we cannot redact that one item," Werholtz said.

The corrections secretary said that if facility staff do flag a publication for censoring, an appeal can be launched against the decision.

"The current censorship list is approximately 15 years old. Within this time frame, 1,622 publications have been appealed with 141 appeals being overturned," Werholtz said.

"While this list reflects censorship activity during the past 15 years, the standards by which items are placed on the list have evolved over time," he continued. "For instance, role playing publications were not allowed within the facility at one time. However, this is no longer a blanket practice. Also, at one time, depictions of guns in magazines were not allowed. However, this practice has changed and photographs of guns are now allowed. The censorship list does not reflect these changes because our practice is that each publication is reviewed as it enters a facility."

"Censorship decisions have been made based on maintaining the safety and security of the facility and those decisions err on the side of caution," Werholtz said.

However, he said that the Kansas Department of Corrections was "planning to review the processes by which publications are placed on this list."

Werholtz asserted that the department was "not aware that the censorship process was an issue until objections were recently raised in the media."

"A quick perusal of the list does raise questions about the overzealousness of publications being placed on the list," he admitted. "Our goal is to review the list and apply some common sense judgement in how this list was and is put together."

In the meantime, he said, "offenders are not facing a shortage of reading materials. Aside from operating facility libraries, the facilities participate in the state's inter-library loan program so the depth of selection is large and almost endless. The facilities also now provide a limited number of books on tablets."

You can see the full list of banned books here.

This article has been updated with statements from Books to Prisoners organizer Michelle Dillon and Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz.

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