Authors everywhere should be lining up to get behind this endeavor, as it can provide them with one thing they love—a captive audience. The Appalachian Prison Book Project sends out used books, free of charge, to prison inmates in Tennessee and five other states.
The idea was hatched by a West Virginia University professor, Katy Ryan, after she taught a course in prison literature in 2004. She enlisted her graduate students as helpers, and they spent a couple of years raising money and plotting a game plan. The first book was shipped in 2006, to the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg, Ohio. Last month they shipped out book number 11,000. The other states involved besides Tennessee and Ohio are West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky.
(Other states have had prison book programs for decades. Pennsylvania has at least six.)
Books come via donations, and are x-rayed and inspected for contraband and inappropriate subject matter. (“Escape from Alcatraz” presumably hasn’t made the list.) Spiral-bound books are rejected as potential weapons; the majority of books accepted are paperbacks. Even so, some prisons don’t accept books of any type, perhaps heeding Thoreau’s warning that a good book makes one dangerous to existing institutions.
“You wouldn’t think it would be that big a deal,” says Outreach Coordinator Dominique Bruno, a doctoral student at WVU. “But it’s as hard to get something into a prison as it is to get out of one.”
Many prisons don’t have libraries, so the Book Project can definitely meet a need. The annals of incarceration, after all, are replete with cases of prisoners who educate themselves by reading, yet there are those wardens and other administrators who seem to frown as much on this particular means of escape as they do on literal ones. (And Emily Dickinson did say that “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”)
But statistics show that recidivism rates decline when prisoners have access to books. And a letter from one West Virginia prisoner can serve as a note to the skeptical:
“I have one more request, for a Scrabble dictionary that would stop a lot of fighting here…”
Last spring the ABP became a tax-exempt 501c3 organization, eligible to accept tax-deductible donations. It hopes to land some grant money, but for now it subsists on funds raised from concerts, carnivals, bake sales and other modest undertakings. So far it has been able to afford shipping books only every other month.
And so far the program has largely thrived only through the prison grapevine. Inmates often hear about it from other inmates, who will pass their books along. (From Ohio: “I have passed the first book I received on to two others so far, and plan to do so until the cover falls off!”)
The all-volunteer staff at ABP is buoyed by such letters from inmates. “I have MS and am bound to a wheelchair, so I spend most of my time reading,” a Tennessee prisoner wrote. “I don’t have anyone on the outside that can help me with finances or packages. You are very special people to do this for us.”
For more information on the Appalachian Prison Book Project, including how to donate books, visit http://aprisonbookproject.wordpress.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write Appalachian Prison Book Project, PO Box 601, Morgantown, WV 26507.