A nonprofit organization that emerged from West Virginia University to create new opportunities for learning among people in prison is one of four exemplary projects being recognized this year as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement Scholarship Awards.
“It is a simple, beautiful thing to pick out a book for someone and put it in the mail,” said Katy Ryan, English professor and Eberly Family Professor of Outstanding Teaching in Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, who launched the Appalachian Prison Book Project in 2004.
Since then, the project — a collaborative effort that also involves the WVU Higher Education in Prison Initiative — has sent more than 50,000 free books to people in Appalachian prisons in six states.
“The letters we open from people in prison make clear the importance of reading, access to education and having a connection to the outside world,” Ryan said.
The effort is continually expanding while generating direction, hope and purpose for participants.
Already the Appalachian Prison Book Project has been facilitating book clubs, providing tuition for University classes in prisons and awarding scholarships to recently released people enrolled in colleges in West Virginia.
Darrin Lester, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, is one of those students who credits education with helping him change his life.
“I began to see I had a passion to enlighten, educate and encourage others who were stuck in the same cycle of self-destruction,” Lester said.
This fall, an initial cohort of students in a maximum-security prison are beginning course work on a newly established pathway to an associate degree created through a partnership between WVU and Waynesburg University.
Since 2007, the Association of Public Land-grant Universities and the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have partnered to honor engagement scholarship and partnerships of four-year public universities.
“This national recognition confirms what we’ve long known about the importance and value of the Appalachian Prison Book Project and is the result of the commitment and work from so many people,” Kristi Wood-Turner, assistant dean and director of the WVU Center for Community Engagement, said.
Nearly two decades into it, Valerie Surrett, president of the Appalachian Prison Book Project, said the work continues because the need continues.
“There is a dire need for books in prisons and jails, and the tireless efforts of volunteers and donors mitigate this need,” Surrett said. “The flow of letters asking for books never slows and our amazing volunteers keep showing up to answer each request — one letter and one book at a time.”
Ryan credits community and University volunteers with helping grow the project.
“Especially students who bring their skills and vision into our workspace, supporting a core team that refuses to give up,” Ryan said. “We have more ideas than we can possibly take on and continue to grow in ways we never imagined.”
Rayna Momen, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, is a long-time volunteer.
“People in more than 200 jails and prisons throughout Appalachia count on us to open those envelopes, sit with those requests and send those books so we can make another world possible,” Momen said.
Hope and direction is what, Ryan said, the Appalachian Prison Book Project provides to people in and out of prison.
“We are bombarded with false narratives about who is in prison. By reading letters and going inside for a book club or class, people see through that misrepresentation. Doing this work encourages all of us to educate ourselves about the history of incarceration, policing and the criminal legal system,” Ryan said.
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