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Students Enrich Lives of Prisoners With The Gift of Books

When students come together to package books for the Virginia Tech Prison Book Project, they start with a reminder of why they do what they do.

At these book wrapping parties, hosted by different campus service organizations throughout the semester, students respond to requests for books from incarcerated people across Virginia. The students match a book from the project’s collection to each request.

But they stop to read each letter aloud before the wrapping begins.

The letters are a window into lives and thoughts of the people they’re helping.

“I would like to thank you for such a wonderful service to prisoners during the pandemic,” one book recipient wrote. “It was difficult to get books unless they came in the mail. Being locked down for two years was rough, but thankfully, books brought us through.”

The requests span a wide range of interests. Some requesters want to read fiction, from classics such as Dante’s “Inferno” and the works of H.G. Wells to modern-day legal thrillers and graphic novels. Others ask for nonfiction, wanting to learn more about topics such as auto mechanics, quantum physics, local history, languages, law, and even chess.

“Those letters are the best evidence of how these books and this project impact the recipients,” said Brian Britt, a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture and the director of the Prison Book Project. “We get letters making comments on how those books have really made a big difference in their frame of mind and their gratitude for contact with people on the outside.”

After the reading, the room is filled with the sound of packing tape as the students begin their job of selecting and wrapping the books, carefully packaging each in white paper with a handwritten note.

They are limited to books they have on hand in their growing library of donations, which means niche requests are often hard to fulfill — but when someone does find a match for something specific, it’s a celebratory moment.

The Prison Book Project is one of several recent efforts by Department of Religion and Culture faculty in support of prison education programs. In September, Professor Sylvester Johnson piloted a humanities course for inmates at a Virginia correctional facility, and in 2021, Britt hosted a panel called “Interfaith Perspectives on American Prisons.”

“The purpose of this university is to serve the learning and educational needs of the people in Virginia, and this is one very important area of learning and educational need,” said Britt.

However, the first connection that led to the partnership happened even earlier. While Britt was serving as chair of the department, an activist wrote to him on behalf of the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit organization that has been sending books to prisoners throughout the Appalachian region since 2006. Religious books are one of the most commonly requested genres through the project, and the organization wanted Britt’s help to identify books about a particular religious tradition.

“They’ve built a really wonderful presence in this area,” said Britt of the organization. “They have established relations with facilities all around the region, so a package with their return address on it is guaranteed to get through.”

After that relationship was established, Britt realized that starting a satellite program for the Virginia Tech community could be a perfect fit for the department’s interest in prison education.

The Prison Book Project began hosting wrapping parties on campus in November 2021. Since then, it’s sent out almost 800 packages of books donated by the community, some containing more than one book.

The project has received an enthusiastic response from students, and its events frequently attract student organizations looking for a service project. This particular wrapping party included students representing Lambda Phi Epsilon and the Society of Women Engineers, and Britt also has hosted events through VT Engage and the Meraki Living-Learning Community.

“I think the culture among Virginia Tech students is unusual for their desire to provide meaningful outreach and service to communities they live in,” said Britt. “There’s also a much higher level of awareness among young people these days about issues of mass incarceration, so they’re very excited about this work.”

The Virginia Tech chapter of national service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega has built an especially strong partnership with the Prison Book Project. They are one of the most frequent hosts of wrapping parties at Virginia Tech, and they list the Prison Book Project as one of their top service engagements in 2022.

Annabelle Owens, the vice president of service in APO, said that her minor in public health fueled her interest in helping incarcerated people, which spurred her to get her organization involved in the Prison Book Project.

“People were overwhelmingly interested in it, to the point where every event I have too many volunteers,” said Owens, a senior biological sciences major. “There’s a lot of people who are really passionate.”

Wrapped and addressed books waiting to be sent out to prisons. Photo by Mary Crawford

When Owens talks about the project, it’s clear that she is passionate, too. Working with the project has even changed her career path. Reading the letters from incarcerated people has opened her eyes to how much help they truly need. Now her goal after she graduates is to pursue a law degree in order to defend their rights and change the system for the better.

“The odds are stacked against us, institutionally,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that I need to put myself in a position where I can make those systematic changes.”

This year, several students in the department’s Humanities for Public Service major are also volunteering with the Prison Book Project for their field studies.

For Danielle Rich, a senior double majoring in humanities for public service and international studies, the project stood out not only because of her love of books, but also because she has known someone in prison. She’s been able to see the heavy restrictions that are placed on incarcerated people’s ability to connect with people outside of their prison cells. So when Rich received the opportunity to volunteer with the Prison Book Project, she saw the potential to reach people who are so often cut off from the rest of the world.

Because of these restrictions, it can often be hard for Rich and the rest of the volunteers to see the direct impact of their contributions. But for Rich, the letters recipients send them about how the books have brightened their days, helped them grow, or even kept them alive is enough to keep her working.

“I would encourage people to be open to helping others even if you don’t see the fruit of it,” she said. “Even if you can’t see something growing or blossoming, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t making an impact.”

In the future, Britt hopes to expand the Prison Book Project into even more prison education initiatives. Potential future ideas include distributing learning materials to prisons in conjunction with more courses like Sylvester Johnson’s, or starting a pen pal program with incarcerated people.

The project welcomes donations of paperback books in good condition, and frequently hosts book drives on campus. Dictionaries, almanacs, and religious texts are always in especially high demand. The website for the VT Prison Book Project has a list of which types of books are most needed.

Additionally, the project has a partnership with Blacksburg Books in which store patrons can directly buy and donate books that have been ordered to fill special requests from letter writers. So far, they have received over 350 books from this cooperation.

And, of course, help is always welcome at book wrapping parties.

“All of these pieces build a bigger picture,” said Owens. “Participating in events like this, but also educating yourself and knowing what you can do to enact systematic change, I think, are the two pillars of being an activist.”

–  Mary Crawford

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