As doctors and scientists around the world struggle to recommend treatments and preventive measures for COVID-19, they also stress the importance of social distancing and maintaining proper hygiene practices. How capable are U.S. prisons—with their often cramped spaces and scant sanitary supplies—of protecting the incarcerated population? And, of course, there is the question of staying mentally strong—keeping all the worrying thoughts and the pangs of loneliness at a distance too.
At APBP, our top priority is to provide books to people in prison. We know that books help readers in many ways, even more so right now. In their letters to APBP, people affirm that books keep them focused, give them strength, and help them learn new skills and look forward to a new life.
Despite Everything, We Are Committed to Sending Books
During the past months, we’ve been faced with the unique challenge of figuring out how to deliver books when people need them the most. By April, our office in the Aull Center, a branch of the Morgantown Public Library, was closed, and it was difficult to get to our off-site storage space on the campus of West Virginia University. It was unsafe to meet one another to exchange tape, wrapping paper, and books. And the post office, one of our favorite places, became a risky venture.
I joined APBP as a graduate summer intern as all of this was unfolding. By mid-May, the team had devised a way to respond to letters under the new conditions. Volunteers dropped off books and wrapping supplies at the homes of friends and core members who were able to help. Supporters sent us needed books, and new volunteers stepped up to help open letters and match books. I joined the regular APBP tasks of opening and reading letters, matching the requests with the books in our collection, and logging and wrapping the matched books for mailing.
In late May, we carefully stepped out of our homes and started meeting one on one to exchange supplies. When I started doing this, I had an epiphany! Reaching out to people who were more vulnerable and threatened could provide me with a sense of purpose during these hard times.
Our mid-year review of books mailed from January through June shows a “v-shaped” curve, with January and June having more than 1000 books mailed each month, and no books at all in April. As I write this, we have sent out a total of 3,711 books—in comparison to 3,378 books sent by this time in 2019. From January to March, 89 volunteers logged books to mail a total of 2,321 books, whereas in roughly the past seven weeks, 15 volunteers logged and mailed 1,390 books. This is a remarkable sign of APBP’s resolve. Overall, we are trying to do everything we can to keep up with the enormous number of requests for books that we receive (approximately 200 books per week), while also staying safe as we work outdoors.
In Progress: A Book Celebrating Letters and Art from Incarcerated People
Since we have been unable to meet in our work space, offer community talks, or have our usual book wrapping parties, we decided to start a project that’s been on our to-do list a long time: create a book with selected letters, essays and artwork that we have received over the years. A work-study student, Kristin DeVault, laid the groundwork for this project in a fall 2019 independent study course with Dr. Katy Ryan.
In early May, a group began to meet once every two weeks, with subgroups meeting during the interim. All the groups hold meetings and work systematically to ensure that we gradually progress towards the publication of the book.
We hope to have a manuscript ready within the next year. We are striving to maintain an inclusive representation in terms of race, age, gender, sexuality, location, ability, ethnicity, and religion, as we select materials from a huge volume of letters, essays and artwork.
What It’s Like Volunteering During a Pandemic
The APBP team is determined to keep up with the demands of book-mailing and bringing out the publication in time, despite the unprecedented challenges. Judy Panagakos, an APBP board member who leads the book-mailing team, says:
When I think back over this time, I will always remember watching all of the letters pile up, week after week. The demand for reading material intensified during the COVID-19 crisis. People appreciated hearing from APBP, via the postcards, and often wrote back to APBP wishing us well.
The crisis has also motivated more people to volunteer for APBP. Rosemary Hathaway, associate professor of English at WVU, observes:
The COVID-19 shutdown actually enabled me to get around to volunteering with APBP, something I’d wanted to do for a long time but which never quite fit into my schedule.
Dr. Hathaway also thinks that the APBP experience has helped her cope with the recent stressful situation:
Between the pandemic and recent racial justice protests, I’ve been feeling pretty powerless and despairing lately. Doing this work has helped me feel like I have a little more agency in the world, and given me a real sense of interconnection. I’m floored by how many people on the inside start their letters asking after ‘our’ health, especially given how rampant the virus has been in correctional facilities.
Katy Ryan, founder of APBP and professor of English at WVU, acknowledges the resolve the APBP team has shown:
The APBP community continues to amaze me. It was heartening to see how many people wanted to help–by donating books, responding to letters, sending treats to my cat Chuck. Trying to change our justice system is often crushing work, but APBP provides joy and hope in the struggle for freedom.
We’re deeply grateful for our volunteers and donors. Thank you to everyone who has helped us continue to serve incarcerated people this year.
By Manzur Alam