“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe” — Madeleine L’Engle
Most prisons have libraries, so why has APBP mailed over 45,000 books across six Appalachian states: West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Ohio?
Recently, while opening a stack of letters containing book requests from incarcerated individuals, APBP came across one explaining that their jail was no longer accepting books from our organization. Some quotes from the letter read:
“Sad news, [jail] has stopped allowing us to receive books from your organization, I am very sad to say.”
“With COVID, reading materials have been difficult to obtain from our institution library.”
“I hope there is a way for your organization to get approved but I don’t think they care much about helping anyone.”
“Your kind service was appreciated and I thank you for the one book that I did receive before the changes. If things change and your service is reinstated, I will be here and happy to hear from APBP.”
Letters like these demonstrate the importance of donating books to prison book projects like APBP. Donations are especially crucial during the COVID pandemic, during which people in prison are having to spend more time in their cells and reading materials are more difficult to obtain.
The State of Prison Libraries
In environments with plenty of time for the mind to wander and little access to natural light, books can provide a window of opportunity to learn and experience different perspectives. But with strict regulations of content and what can be received, institution libraries often struggle to have books to put on the shelves.
Budgets for libraries in prisons and jails are often cut, resulting in a lack of funding to purchase new reading materials. Most institutions do not allow friends or family members of incarcerated individuals to send them books. Prison populations continue to increase, but their library shelves continue to narrow.
The American Library Association, the world’s oldest and largest library association, is dedicated to promoting international library education and has recommended a minimum standard of 15 books per incarcerated person in prisons and jails. In 2000, they reported that the average prison library only had seven titles per incarcerated person. With prison populations increasing by around 100,000 since then, we have to wonder if prison libraries have fallen even further behind.
Though seven titles per person may sound like a lot, getting access to libraries can be difficult. Jameson Rohrer, a supervisor of five prison libraries in California, says that it “takes a long time for anything to be done, and prison libraries are way down the totem in terms of importance and funding and staffing.”
Additionally, thousands of book titles have been banned from jails and prisons across the country. This link leads to a list of some of the book bans implemented in the United States, including Ohio and Virginia, which are states with prisons that APBP serves.
The Benefits of Prison Book Projects
In Reading Prisoners, Jodi Schorb argued that people in prison “use reading to counter forces of isolation, abandonment, and dehumanization and to generate possibilities to reenvision and rescript their lives.” Though Schorb’s work focuses on 18th- and early 19th-century prisons, the quote still stands.
COVID-19 quarantine lockdowns have forced incarcerated people into their cells for 23 hours a day. It doesn’t get much more isolating and dehumanizing than that.
As a way to combat that isolation and support reading behind bars, APBP is dedicated to getting books into the hands of people in prison. We receive hundreds of letters every week written by incarcerated people seeking dictionaries, almanacs, mystery novels, biographies, and more. Some requests are even from prison libraries themselves.
Many of those who request books from APBP are seeking to self-study and provide themselves with an education. Prison libraries are often either short on or do not have access to many of these reading materials. Without prison book projects like APBP and others across the country, people in prison would not have as many opportunities to access books.
We believe that education and access to books are basic human rights. Prison book programs, in addition to prison libraries, help meet some of the needs of these underrepresented individuals.
Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project
APBP relies on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration and make a difference in the lives of thousands of incarcerated individuals.