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The Journey of a Book: What Happens to the Books We Mail to Incarcerated Readers

We often get asked about the history of books after they are donated to us; where they go, how they are used, and if they truly make a difference.

Our donors and supporters know that the books are read; they are used by incarcerated people to entertain themselves, to study, to investigate their cases, and to learn new skills—it’s why you donate them in the first place. Yet, this is just a surface-level explanation of the impact that truly takes place each time a person in prison gets a book from us.

After you donate a book to APBP, what begins is an ever-evolving journey that creates a mutual network of knowledge, community, and compassion with all the hands it passes through.

From the thank you letters and personal requests APBP receives weekly from our friends in prison, it’s more than clear that these books are nothing short of a lifeline that help people in prison cope with the harsh conditions of life while incarcerated, explore enlightening perspectives, grow intellectually, establish new relationships—and above all—feel like a person again.

Here is what happens to the books you send to APBP after they are mailed to people in prison.

They Are Cherished

If one thing is certain, it’s that these books are loved.

There’s no way to lightly emphasize how significant these books and consistent access to written materials are for people in prison. In some cases, it can be a matter of life or death. For many, these books are their only form of entertainment, connection to the outside world, refuge of distraction for ongoing boredom or solidarity, and means of survival.

Speaking on the value that donated books contributes to the well-being of people in prison, our friends wrote to us:

“Since I am in a 9×12 cell 24/7 with no TV and walkmen, 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.” — Virginia

“The Appalachian Prison Book Project has broaden[ed] my understanding. Providing books, the Appalachian prison book project has provided myself. Information is power and power is information.” — Virginia

When a person in prison is given a book, it is not taken for granted.

They Are Read Until They Fall Apart

When we get thank you letters from book recipients, we are often told that their books are read over and over again:

“The book you sent me is a gold mine of information I will probably consult for years to come. I loved it, and am still learning things from it. It’s all about carpentry. Thanks keep up the good work guy!” — Tennessee

Books, whether they are fiction, nonfiction, how-to, or any genre, will always have something to offer their reader and can even create a different reading experience each time they are opened. People in prison often reconsult, reread, and consistently enjoy their books many times after they are read for the first time, even if it is not themselves who reread the books; they often pass them onto their cellmates or block mates:

“I was quite surprised, and very pleased, to hear back from you so quickly . . . I have passed the first book I received on to two others so far, and plan to do so until the cover falls off!” — Ohio

“I received your book, To Kill a Mockingbird, one week ago today. It was an excellent book, one I had never read before. I was unaware of all the awards it had won, which made the reading all the more enjoyable. I have passed the book along to another already, and look to continue so until I donate it to our library.” — Ohio

They Are Shared

For the communities we serve, knowledge is happiness, and happiness is contagious. Almost always, a book that we send to a person in prison is shared, either with their cellmates, block mates, or other incarcerated peers. Books are also passed onto the prison library to provide widespread access to the materials.

We often get letters that display a strong enthusiasm to pass on the gift of knowledge and provide evidence of a sense of hope and courage to not only continue reading on but also to spread the joy to others:

“The books that I request and receive are much appreciated. The books also have an external life here. There is a ‘community book shelf’ in the block, so one book often gets read by several people.” — Ohio

They Change Lives

The biggest takeaway to really draw upon from these book donations is the sheer fact that they monumentally transform lives and shape a future entrenched knowledge and self-choice.

The avenues that reading can support incarcerated people are indispensable. From books about gardening to books about coding, from American classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird to staples as simple as the dictionary, it’s hard to imagine how any book donation couldn’t work to serve an imprisoned person in some type of capacity:

“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. 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.” — West Virginia

Regardless of what they are about, books provide people with a wealth of knowledge, a means of transportation to a world outside their own, perspectives never before encountered, and a chance at a prison-free future that is void of the pressures, challenges, and oppressive regimes that keep them there in the first place:

“Thank you so much for all you have done for me. Because of your book program sending me Michie’s West Virginia Code Annotated,” I was able to litigate an amended sentence order from life without parole to eligibility for parole after serving 15 years. In other words, you helped save my life.” — West Virginia

Your Donated Books Live On

As long as APBP continues to receive feedback like this—words that evidence the clear and undeniable benefits an access to books can deliver—we will continue to fight to bring books to the hands of people in prison.

To find out more about our organization and how to donate, check out our book donation guidelines.

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