Posted: December 1, 2017 at 7:46 pm

By Lindsey Tingler, Samantha Huffman and Joe Gale

For many inmates in the Appalachian prison system, having access to books isn’t just a luxury, it’s also a much-needed means of escape.

“As a inmate doing time I pass my time by reading because it keeps me out of trouble and it opens my mind to new things,” wrote one West Virginia inmate in a letter to the Appalachian Prison Book Project. “When I get into a good book I am transported away from this place to the places in the books. I read about 2 to 3 books a week.”

The Appalachian Prison Book Project volunteers gathered on Friday, September 22, 2017 at Colson Hall to sort and archive the 22,000 letters they’ve received from prisoners since 2004, when the organization was founded by Katy Ryan.

Ryan, a West Virginia University English professor, is passionate about helping prisoners. It’s been an issue she’s tried to tackle for years.

“When I was in my twenties I worked with teenagers in the juvenile system in Boston, so I spent three years doing outreach work with those kids and realized what they were sort of up against,” she said.

With the help of numerous volunteers within the organization, Ryan and APBP have been able, and continue to impact tens of thousands of incarcerated lives all across Appalachia.

The issue? High recidivism rates. The goal? Doing it by helping to educate inmate populations; starting with getting them books to read at no cost to them.

“It is a big issue, it affects so many people,” said Ryan.

Below is a video of Avery Williamson, an APBP volunteer, describing what the project is and the impact he believes it has. 

According to the West Virginia Department of Corrections, of the more than 7,000 inmates in 2016, 60.13 percent of them lacked even a high school diplomas. Only 6.86 percent had post-high school education.

       The above images were drawn by inmates and sent to the APBP as thanks for the books they received. Due to privacy restrictions the names of the inmates have been removed from the images. 

In six states, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee, prisoners can write letters to APBP requesting up to two books at a time, one of which must be a dictionary or almanac. Prisoners are limited to non-hardcover books, as they are banned from most prisons for security reasons and the books cannot contain any maps or material that could be considered pornographic.

The requests range from mystery thrillers to personal finance and everything in between. Some of the most popular material sought after by inmates are children’s books and books about Wicca religion.

APBP believes that books and reading as an essential part of helping to reduce recidivism rates, not only in West Virginia, but across the entire country. A recent study done by the United States Sentencing Commission showed that nearly half of all inmates released, 49.3 percent, will return to jail within eight years.

Below are statistics regarding the inmate population in West Virginia Prisons. 

“Our focus, eventually, is to create a digital archive that will be available online for research and education. Our plan is to scan all of these and tag them by state, by year, perhaps by content of the letter. So, if someone is asking for dictionaries you could search for dictionary and find them. Or if they have something about solitary confinement that could be a tag,” explained Ryan.

The APBP isn’t the only organization of its kind. There are approximately 25 prison book projects around the nation.

“When we started in 2004 we looked around West Virginia to see if there were any organizations doing this work and there weren’t,” Ryan said. “Then we looked around the region and discovered there weren’t really any in this region of the country so we carved out those six states that we send to.”

Of the thousands of letters sorted on Friday, the majority of them shared the same feelings of gratitude and wanting to learn more. For many, the books are a way to pass the time. For others, it’s a way to elude the reality of their situation.

One letter from an inmate in Virginia said: “Since I am in a 9×12 cell 24/7 with no TV and walkman, I have very little to do but read… I sleep eighteen to twenty hours a day, give or take a few. And I have nine years to go. So, I want to learn a few things.”

Some of the letters had beautiful artwork drawn on the pages and envelopes, many were riddled with grammatical errors, misspellings and illegible print. But they all carried the same message: hope. One book at a time, the Appalachian Prison Book Project is bringing inmates the belief that they can still change their lives for the better.