Student volunteers help send books to incarcerated people across Appalachia
Over the past year, students at Virginia Tech have mailed almost 1000 books to incarcerated people across the state, part of a regional effort, known as the Appalachian Prison Book Project.
About a dozen volunteers, recently gathered to prepare the latest shipment of books. They wrapped books in plain white paper. Student Sydney Williams was addressing a book about gardening, to send to a reader who requested that type of how-to book.
Belle Owens helped organize this wrap party as a service project through her fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. “I’m a reader, I love to read,” Owens said. “And reading all these notes from people who have the same interests as me, but live such different lifestyles, and are in such different places, I don’t know, it was really upsetting because I really feel like, we’re not all that different.”
The students match each book to a reader who is incarcerated at a Virginia prison or jail. The readers send letters, specifying the types of books they like.
“These letters always express gratitude for the books,” said Brian Britt is a professor in Virginia Tech’s Religion and Culture department who helped organize the Virginia Tech Prison Book Project, along with a handful of student volunteers.
“There have been letters that talk about the books helping them get through some very difficult personal struggles,” Britt said.
Some of the most common requests are how-to books for crafting or starting a business, and reference books, especially dictionaries.
The Virginia Tech Prison Book Project started in late 2021 through the. Volunteers have organized 22 of these “wrap parties” on campus. Books are donated by the community and can be dropped off at three locations in Blacksburg, including at Blacksburg Books.
The Virginia Tech project partners with the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP), which is based in Morgantown, West Virginia. “One of the goals of our organization is to engage folks in the wider Appalachian region with the important work of sending books and providing education to incarcerated people," said Lydia Welker, one of the organizers of the APBP. “The Virginia Tech group is an example of the dedication people in this community have to these issues. We’re grateful for their passion and excited to see this group grow.”
Welker said the Virginia Tech chapter is the first satellite project of APBP, but they are hoping to start a similar chapter in Charleston.
Since 2004, the APBP has mailed over 50,000 books to people in prisons and jails across Appalachia.