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Where the Letters Lead: the Appalachian Prison Book Project

In 1994, Renaldo Hudson was on death row in Illinois. As we became friends, I knew where I stood in relation to the place where the plan was to kill him. I was not interested in starting a book club there or teaching a class. I was not interested in writing an essay on the literature of resistance.

Twenty-six years later, I’ve written that essay, edited that collection. I participate in book clubs and teach classes in prison and, with many others, wear a badge and walk a line and try to do no harm and breathe through a world of trauma. Doing this work can feel like walking a rickety bridge over a fiery abyss—of disconnection, complicity, unending grief. And I’m white, so the passage is exponentially smoothed. Also on the bridge making varied crossings are prison workers, contractors, volunteers, family members and friends whose loved ones are incarcerated.[1] Sometimes you see someone falling. Sometimes you lose your step.

In 2004, I taught my first graduate course in prison studies at West Virginia University. As we read fiction, essays, memoirs, and poetry, students were struck by the emphasis, across more than one hundred and fifty years of writing, on the importance of access to books in prison. In “Coming into Language,” Jimmy Santiago Baca describes stealing a textbook in a county jail and falling in love with words, with poetry: “I crawled out of stanzas,” he writes.[2] Assata Shakur recalls the company that reading provided her in state custody: “Me and James Baldwin are communicating. His fiction is more real than this reality.”[3]

I mentioned to students in that class that there were no organizations providing free books to people incarcerated in our state. We did some research and learned there were very few prison book projects in our region. We decided to create one. Joined by community and university members, we spent two years collecting paperbacks, raising money, and finding a donated workspace. We decided to focus on six states—West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland—and began to call ourselves the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP).

APBP is grounded in the belief that education is a human right and that engaging the community is essential to restorative justice. Dr. Valerie Surrett wrote our mission statement.

In September, Renaldo walked out of prison. Moon right where he left it thirty-seven years ago. It took a pandemic to open the door for this person who has so much to contribute, so much to teach. His level of fortitude and patience, his commitment to education and mentorship, his great heart should not be requirements to be free. It took all of that as well.

A Zillion Words 

Over two hundred letters arrive at APBP each week, many with beautiful artwork on the envelope (figs. 1-2).

Envelope art
Fig 1. Envelope art.
Envelope art
Fig. 2. Envelope art.

Book requests span the spectrum: almanacs, westerns, poetry, how to draw, learn music, do woodwork, start a business, books on indigenous histories, LGBTQ novels, spy thrillers, African American literature, the Divine Comedy, sacred books, Chinese philosophy, legal dictionaries, books in Spanish, joke books. Volunteers try to select books that people really want to read (fig. 3).

Volunteers Gabriella Pishotti, Kristin DeVault, and Beth Staley (left to right). Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.
Fig. 3. Volunteers Gabriella Pishotti, Kristin DeVault, and Beth Staley (left to right). Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr. 

One person wrote, “I only want books on WV History.” The most requested book is the dictionary. We have mailed more than 50,000 books (figs. 4-5).

Books to be wrapped and mailed. Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr. 
Fig. 4. Books to be wrapped and mailed. Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr. 

APBP is a volunteer-driven organization and one of about forty prison book projects across the country, a network that shares resources and information, including updates on book bans and restrictions. While APBP donates to prison libraries, we work hard to preserve the one-to-one exchange. People tell us over and over how much this matters, as in these letters sent from Tennessee and West Virginia:

I want to tell you that I really appreciate the service you provide to prisoners. It truly reminds me that we are not all forgotten and there are people like yourself that still care. . . . I have always enjoyed reading and my family simply can’t afford to buy me books.

I got your info from a fellow inmate that gets books from y’all. Could you send me some books so I will have something to read? I’m on protective custody and the library hardly ever comes back here to bring us books. I’ll read anything you send to me.

I am currently locked in my cell 23 hours a day, so you can only imagine how much mail means to me :(

Will you please send me a dictionary with a “ZILLION, ZILLION” words in it?! I am 60 years old and have been in prison 23 years, with life to go. But I can read even the smallest of print.

I stayed up and read the book all night. I really did enjoy it and I thank you. I love reading . . . I have one more request, for a Scrabble dictionary. That would stop a lot of fighting here, when they are playing the game.

If I ever get on my feet I will send some stamps to cover some costs. My mom passed away last year and I’ve been having a hard time and the books are very appreciated. :) Keep on doing what you do because you are saving lives for sure. I’d go crazy without a good book to read and our library is very small when we get to use it, which isn’t often.

All the books you have sent me in the past have definitely helped me pass the time and keep my sanity when the prison is on lockdown and we are stuck in our cells all day for days, and sometimes weeks at a time.

As we read letters and learned to navigate a labyrinth of mail policies, we wanted to go inside prisons with books. To learn how, in 2014 we organized the Educational Justice & Appalachian Prisons Symposium at WVU. The event brought together scholars, activists, prison staff and administration, students, lawyers, and leaders of higher education in prison programs. The opening panel featured three incarcerated men who spoke about the power of education. The symposium led to our first book club in prison.

Book clubs consist of fifteen incarcerated members and four to six APBP volunteers who meet every other week to discuss books and work on writing projects. Members decide together on what to read. Discussions are expansive, full of humor and insight. Two book clubs created collections of their phenomenal writing and art.

To go through the gates is to be made newly aware of John Wideman’s observation in Brothers and Keepers: “Power was absurdly apportioned all on one side.”[4] Toting in books for mothers who may have lost custody of their children; doing a workshop, knowing most of the writers will be unable to share their work or name publicly; analyzing a poem when what most needs to be said cannot be said: it can feel like capitulation, like not enough. At the end of his memoir, R. Dwayne Betts acknowledges, “The truth is the names in this book represent real people, and whatever I say fails to open the cell doors that close behind them.”[5] Many of us struggle with this limit but find hope and context for this work in renewed calls to defund the police, abolish prisons, and protect black lives. Criminal justice scholar Breea Willingham offers this perspective: writing “allows imprisoned women to create their own discourse within an oppressive system and in an oppressive space. Though their writings may not dismantle the system, they create a space where the women find their voice and educate themselves.”[6] We have learned not to underestimate that space.

Inside members set a high standard for literary analysis, application, clarity, and for caring what the person next to you is trying to say. Kevin wrote this after reading Brothers and Keepers in my first Inside Out class:

I became more conscious of the world around me. . . . The literature that I read in class led me to have certain conversations with my family that helped me cope with things that happened in my life. I was for sure able to heal.

Those of us who teach have been changed by these conversations. I used to think content was the most important part of my literature courses. Now I know only the connections between us will do justice to liberating content.

The Work

Prisons are the backend (and also, given discrimination upon release, at times the frontend) of law enforcement mechanisms that demonstrate racism at every juncture, what James Baldwin called the “criminal power” of the system.[7] The scale of the US prison experiment involves the oversurveillance and confinement of Black and brown people, LGBTQ people, people with histories of trauma, of unemployment, those who are poor, with disabilities, struggling with addiction. None of these categories sum up the individuals and communities who are trying to manage and survive a system that exceeds prison gates.[8] To understand who ends up under correctional supervision or in custody, why, and what happens, the public needs access to the analyses and creative work of impacted people.

Despite scarce resources, constraints on communication, and constant noise, people in prison write: memoirs, essays, novels, zines, legal briefs, poems, songs, academic articles, journalism, plays, podcasts, and many, many letters. Betts explains, “An ink pen was the only way to carve a voice out of the air and have others hear it while in prison.”[9] A large part of APBP’s work is learning to hear these voices.

The literature of imprisonment teaches us how to read—and how, to borrow from Edwidge Danticat, to read dangerously.[10] Not unlike slave narratives, a tradition often explicitly invoked by imprisoned writers, these texts call for readers’ active response to injustice and direct attention to authority, intertextuality, and veiled omissions. James Forman, Jr. has called for a reckoning with political and legal systems that goes “beyond the New Jim Crow.”[11] An analytical overreliance on an earlier period’s form of racist repression, he argues, can lead us to insufficiently attend to people with violent charges, to victims of violence, and to the forces that land a million white people in prison. The constant reconfiguration of the racist heart demands praxis attuned to the scope of what it means to be “caught” in America.[12] Literary studies in turn are challenged to generate readings that account for the contemporary carceral regime. We cannot understand Susan Burton’s Becoming Ms. Burton or Donna Hylton’s A Little Piece of Light with only the tools we need to read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. But we need those tools.

An imprisoned activist recently tweeted, “If free world scholars are not willing to engage the work of imprisoned intellectuals, from where will they get their information, the factual basis, of their work? Do they expect the departments of corrections or the police to provide accurate information or analyses?” It is an urgent question in our country: Where do you get your information?

Students and colleagues who have not been affected by incarceration often respond in the same way when they first go inside prison: “I had no idea.” They are not talking about the barbed wire or gun towers; they are talking about the people. Confronting the depth of this not-knowing compels us to think about the collusion of K-college education with mass incarceration. Going inside confers onto members of higher education a responsibility to change these relations—to teach the history of convict leasing, to eliminate criminal background checks, to support Pell grants for imprisoned students and scholarships for those released, to create avenues for people to publish and speak without retaliation, and to bring into focus the conditions that give rise to abuse, harm, injury, and premature death, in and out of prison.

It also requires rethinking concepts. To give one example, in Forced Passages, Dylan Rodriguez warns against the generic use of “prison writing” to categorize writing produced in captivity.

To the extent that “the prison” becomes a homogenizing modifier, designating the institutional location of the writer's labor, the genre equilibrates state captivity with other literary moments and spatial sites in civil society, or the free world . . . The academic and cultural fabrication of “prison writing” as a literary genre is, in this sense, a discursive gesture toward order and coherence where, for the writer, there is generally neither.[13]

Rodriguez recommends instead “radical prison praxis,” an approach alert to the white-supremacist logic of immobility and the “militarized physiological domination over human beings.”[14] This kind of solidarity changes not only how we do things; it changes the “we.”


APBP builds at the crossroads of research, teaching, direct service, and activism, ethical realms that can be reinforcing or in conflict. The people we have come to know through this work refuse to discount their lives and continue to care and to create. When Celeste, a founding book club member, was transferred, she worked for two years to start her own book club. Kevin published a memoir, a series of reflections and letters to his eight-year-old son. Maurice created the APBP logo (figs. 6-7).

APBP logo by book club member Maurice
Fig. 6. APBP logo by book club member Maurice.
Letter sorting to prepare for book collection.
Fig. 7. Letter sorting to prepare for book collection.

Magical Charlie is keeping a daily journal of his experience living through a pandemic in prison. Ya’iyr is writing poems wrenched from desolation and driven by Black love.

Last year, APBP was able to pay tuition costs for WVU Inside-Out classes. Inspired by the community that emerged from these classes, we are working to create a path to an Associate of Arts degree for incarcerated students. In November, Renaldo Hudson talked to my graduate class about his imprisonment and release, his work to create change, and where he finds joy.

We are partnering with the Mellon Foundation’s Million Book Project, directed by Betts, to bring books into prisons. We are creating a collection of letters and artwork sent to APBP over the years (fig. 7). We are establishing a protocol for initiating and reviewing advocacy efforts with and on behalf of diverse stakeholders. This last commitment emerged from APBP’s public stance against exploitative prison tablet contracts.

Everything we do revolves around books. APBP has always been powered by a love of reading. One measure of our work is books mailed, classes taken. But the real measure is freedom. The road is long. We are taking deep breaths. Opening every letter.



[1] See Victoria M. Bryan, “The Prison Oppresses: Avoiding the False Us/Them Binary in Prison Education,” Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison: Students and Instructors on Pedagogy Behind the Wall, ed. Rebecca Ginsberg (New York: Routledge, 2019), 157-165.

[2] Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Coming into Language,” Doing Time: Twenty-Five Years of Prison Writing, ed. Bell Gale Chevigny (New York: Arcade, 2011), 103.

[3] Assata: An Autobiography (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), 155.

[4] John Wideman, Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir (New York: First Mariner Books, 2005), 84.

[5] R. Dwayne Betts, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (New York: Avery, 2009), 207.

[6] Breea C. Willingham, “Black Women's Prison Narratives and the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in US Prisons,” Critical Survey, Vol. 23, No. 3 (2011), 57.

[7] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992), 23. Also see, D. Quentin Miller, A Criminal Power: James Baldwin and the Law (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012).

[8] For the extensive reach of prison, see, for instance, Brett Story, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2019).

[9]  R. Dwayne Betts, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (New York: Avery, 2009), 123.

[10] Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New York: Vintage, 2010), 10.

[11] James Forman, Jr. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” Racial Critiques (February 26, 2012), 101-146.

[12] With “caught,” I allude to Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[13] Dylan Rodriguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 84.

[14] Dylan Rodriguez, “The Disorientation of the Teaching Act: Abolition as Pedagogical Position,” Radical Teacher 88 (2010), 8.