During my first year in the Master of Social Work program at West Virginia University, I was required to complete an internship within the community. I wanted to work with an organization that supported and helped people in prison, so I contacted the Appalachian Prison Book Project and expressed my interest.
In October of 2020, I entered a calming, serene space called the Aull Center as APBP’s Outreach and Operations Coordinator. I came into this room as a blank book. In my vocabulary, the terms “prison” and “jail” were unfamiliar. My role was more than leading new volunteers, managing the office, or assisting the supervisor of undergraduate students. It was also about education, compassion, and learning the challenges faced by incarcerated individuals in their daily lives.
What Does a Book Mean to Someone in Prison?
I read a letter from an older gentleman inquiring about a Western book. He was describing how he recently recovered from a rare form of cancer, and he was frightened of contracting COVID-19. He would try to avoid leaving his room since social distancing is extremely difficult in prison. His single distraction was the books we were sending him.
How can a book be so valuable? How can a book save someone both physically and mentally? These were questions that started to develop in my consciousness. I truly began to perceive what a book meant to someone. What one book can do to someone.
A book meant a safe space for this man, where he can feel secure and relaxed. I never thought how a book could have so many meanings. It simulates a home, a classroom, a social gathering—places that people on the outside take for granted. We are not only sending books for people to read; we are also sending hope, optimism, and comfort.
Challenging Mass Incarceration One Step at a Time
I am beyond grateful for having such an educative and fulfilling opportunity to complete my internship in this nonprofit organization. There is always something more to learn, something more to do, but now I have the basis to start a change in the criminal justice system.
As for today, I can say the blank book I began with is now being written.
By Vanessa Hamade