The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

November 23, 2012

Appalachian book project helps inmates in six states

MORGANTOWN — For people behind bars in six Appalachian states, they are one of the few forms of escape — hundreds of used books, wrapped in brown paper and stacked thigh-high under a table, just waiting to be shipped.

Parenting and self-help books. History and law. Dictionaries, biographies and fiction. Whatever the subject, volunteers with the Appalachian Prison Book Project believe they hold the power to unlock worlds.

From a small room in a historic house next to the Morgantown Public Library, they meticulously organize requests, exchanging letters to find just the right read and get permission from prison administrators while simultaneously scrambling to raise money for shipping.

The process takes months, and the restrictions are many: Spiral-bound books are banned, their spines seen as potential weapons. Hardcovers are discouraged. Some institutions refuse books altogether, often with no explanation.

“You would think it’s not that big a deal. We’re just sending out used books, free of charge, to people in prison,” says Dominique Bruno, a doctoral student at West Virginia University who serves as outreach coordinator. “But it is as hard to get something into a prison as it is to get out of one.”

For six years they have kept at it, shipping the 11,000th book last month. They’ve since sent dozens more to state and federal prisons across West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Other states have had prison book programs for decades, from California to Illinois and Texas to Massachusetts. Pennsylvania alone has at least six.

But until professor Katy Ryan taught a course on prison literature in 2004, West Virginia and the other five states had none. She and her graduate students discussed the need, spent two years raising money and collecting books, then started taking requests. They books are all privately donated, many by students and professors in WVU’s English department and some by others in the community. Occasionally, an author or publisher will send a box of new books, too.

The volunteers shipped the first book, “Natural Remedies,” to the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg, Ohio, in 2006. The second went to the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in southern West Virginia.

Warden David Ballard says the program keeps his prisoners occupied with material from a trustworthy source.

“It was a free resource the inmates could use, and most of the books are educational or religious in nature, so that was a plus,” Ballard says. “There was no reason for us why we should stop it.”

Books are X-rayed and inspected by hand before they’re delivered. Anything that would help an inmate plot an escape or manipulate locks would be rejected, as would anything pornographic. But Ballard need not worry about that kind of material; it doesn’t get shipped.

Many prisons lack the money to develop a good library, and most inmates have no way to buy books themselves, Ryan says. Her team receives letters that range from pragmatic (a Scrabble dictionary to settle fights) to heartbreaking (a mother determined to become a better parent.)

“I have MS and am bound to a wheelchair, so I spend most of my time reading,” one 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.”

Prisons typically offer inmates the chance to purchase small televisions, portable CD players and radios, or even MP3 players. But not everyone can afford them. And while some facilities also offer the use of computers, access to the Internet is restricted. For many, free books fill the gap.

A Virginia inmate on 24-hour lockdown told the project volunteers that he sleeps 18-20 hours a day.

“And I have nine years to go,” his letter said. “So, I want to learn a few things.”

Initially, the team relied on small grants from the Faculty Senate and the WVU Center for Civic Engagement. But this past spring, it became a tax-exempt 501c3 organization, capable of accepting tax-deductible donations. It also makes the program eligible for more grants and discounts on postage, the only significant expense.

The group raises money with concerts and carnivals, letter readings and bake sales.

Though it takes only a few hundred dollars a month to keep the program running, it can only ship books every other month.

The program has no real structure. Inmates often learn of it from each other. Parents sometimes write on behalf of incarcerated children. Inmates often function as informal librarians, passing their books along to others.

Still, some institutions refuse donations, a decision Bruno says is largely subjective. She suspects some administrators question the politics of certain members. But the group’s mission is apolitical.

“We are basically responding to a need. But I don’t know if you can see that or understand that unless you are here with us,” Bruno says. “And probably working as the warden of a prison or working in a prison mail room, you do not see it that way at all.”

She understands the skepticism but shrugs.

“We are simply doing exactly what we say in our mission statement,” Bruno says. “We are sending books to prisoners. That’s all.”

1
Text Only
West Virginia
  • Symptoms match with spilled chemical

    For two weeks following a January chemical spill into the public water supply, hundreds of West Virginians examined in emergency rooms had ailments consistent with exposure to the chemical, health officials said Wednesday.
    Federal toxic substance experts and the state Bureau for Public Health stopped short of saying that their analysis determined without a doubt that patients’ problems stemmed from chemical contact.

    April 24, 2014

  • West Virginia chemical safe level following spill based on two weeks

    When federal officials decided what chemical levels West Virginians could safely consume in water tainted by a January spill, their standard assumed people would be exposed for two weeks, not 100-plus days.

    April 23, 2014

  • Some state Democrats flip to GOP

    As Republicans rally for more control in West Virginia’s long-time Democratic Legislature, a few Democrats have jumped ship to the GOP and are challenging former colleagues in midterm races.
    Republicans face their biggest election opportunity in decades in the House of Delegates, where a four-seat swing would put them in power for the first time in 85 years.

    April 20, 2014

  • Gee’s move could save Ohio State millions

    Ohio State University expects to save millions of dollars because former president Gordon Gee is giving up part of his retirement package as he becomes president of West Virginia University for the second time.

    April 19, 2014

  • W.Va. AG court filings: Dismiss gun law question

    The attorney general says a court challenge should be dismissed over whether West Virginians can bring guns to city recreational facilities that hold school events.
    Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s filings Thursday argue the city of Charleston shouldn’t receive court guidance on how to implement a state gun law.

    April 18, 2014

  • Energy-state Dems split from Obama

    Scrapping to keep a West Virginia Senate seat Democratic in a state that’s sprinted to the right, Natalie Tennant is counting on her allegiance to the coal industry to separate herself from an unpopular President Barack Obama.
    Her approach reflects common Democratic strategy and tactics this midterm election year in energy-producing states that lean Republican: Sen. Mary Landrieu is vying for a fourth term representing Louisiana; Alaska Sen. Mark Begich is running for re-election for the first time; and Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes wants to replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

    April 17, 2014

  • Official: $2M in chemical spill costs reimbursable

    Public agencies and nonprofits that helped after a Jan. 9 chemical leak into the water supply could receive $2 million in reimbursements for their emergency work, a West Virginia homeland security official said.
    Federal and state emergency officials briefed fire departments, paramedics and other government groups Wednesday on how to recoup costs.

    April 17, 2014

  • Manchin urges mines to speak out for coal

    The Democratic senator leading the battle against the White House’s strategy to fight climate change urged the mining industry on Tuesday to speak out about coal’s role in providing affordable, reliable electricity to the country to help combat strict new emissions rules for coal-fired power plants.

    April 16, 2014

  • Many schools already meet new mandate for breakfast

    Many West Virginia public schools have changed the way they serve breakfast to students ahead of a requirement that goes into effect in September.

    April 14, 2014

  • W.Va. grower promotes unmodified feed corn

    Lyle Tabb is hoping that his non-genetically modified corn will take off with farmers who can charge top dollar for “all natural” eggs.
    Genetically modified or GMO corn has greatly simplified the process of getting rid of weeds, but has also substantially increased the amount of a chemical call glyphosate.

    April 13, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads