“You’re not going to hear from me anymore because I’m about to be released; thank you for the years of books.”

Lydia Welker, digital communications coordinator for the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP), said the above quote was the best email she’d ever received. In her role, Lydia frequently emails incarcerated Appalachians about book requests.

“It moved me so much,” Lydia said. “I know nothing else about this man except for the type of books he likes to read; hearing he was about to go to a halfway house and be released was amazing news.”

In 2004, a group of students, faculty and community members were inspired by a graduate course on the history and literature of imprisonment taught by Dr. Katy Ryan, an English professor at West Virginia University, to create APBP, which became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2012.

APBP’s mission is to challenge mass incarceration through books, education and community engagement by sending free books and providing educational opportunities to those in prison when they can. As of 2023, the organization has mailed more than 65,000 free books to people in prison and jails in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Maryland.

As a WVU English graduate student, Lydia started volunteering in January 2016, reading letters, matching books and wrapping packages. Now she manages the website, email, social media accounts and more.

“I slowly started to do more and more work that aligns with my career,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about prison censorship or really even prisons and jails whenever I started volunteering. But I love books, and volunteering at APBP, you are surrounded by books and get to give back to the community through books.”

“It’s difficult to send books into prisons and jails,” Lydia said. “We are constantly having to navigate rules and regulations that change based on federal and state prisons, what certain wardens or facilities have on a rulebook, what certain people in the mailrooms think, and we try to cultivate book donations that have the greatest likelihood of being allowed inside prisons.”

The most requested book by people in prison and jail across the country is the dictionary.

“Which goes to show you what folks need when they’re inside prison: they’re looking for information, they’re looking for things we very much take for granted,” Lydia said. In addition, APBP gets many requests for other reference books, such as thesauruses, world almanacs, medical and legal dictionaries and “How To” books, as well as foreign language learning materials and nonfiction books like memoirs, autobiographies and self-help books. “We get a lot of popular genre requests, like mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, sci-fi, fantasy and westerns, and we get plenty of requests for Native American literature, books by Black authors and LGBTQ+ literature,” Lydia said. “Those are the most requested genres, and that means they’re the ones we are most looking for when we are asking for donations from folks.” For three years in a row, APBP has provided scholarships for students in higher education who were recently incarcerated in West Virginia, partnering with the newly launched West Virginia University Higher Education and Prison Initiative.

”We believe that access to literature and education are human rights, and APBP is an avenue to provide that right to folks who don’t have it,” Lydia said. “Incarcerated folks deserve access to the books they want to read and that’s our job. They deserve access to educational opportunity, and we are going to try to provide that. That is why we exist.”

According to Lydia, an important step to challenging mass incarceration in Appalachia and across the U.S. is to humanize people behind bars and to build a bridge between the disconnect of those inside of prison and those outside of prison.

“One way we do that is by having our volunteers read letters written by people who are incarcerated, and then they can carry the lived experiences of those people into these larger national conversations about incarceration, about policing, about prisons to help fight this divide that prisons create in our society,” she said.

For Lydia, one of the most rewarding aspects of volunteering for APBP is hearing how people have enjoyed the books they receive.

“Sometimes they’ll write back with a review or say, ‘I love this book so much! I shared it with the person in my cell, I shared it with the rest of my block, and then I donated it to the library so other people can enjoy it as well.’ It’s always nice to hear how books live on, spark conversations, how they continue to bring joy to people’s lives, even behind bars,” she said.

Just like her favorite email, Lydia has a favorite quote from a letter from someone who was incarcerated in West Virginia, saying APBP ‘helped save his life.’ It’s indelible in her mind.

Because of the book program, this incarcerated person was able to read the West Virginia Code Annotated and was able to litigate an amended sentence order from life without parole to eligibility for parole after serving 15 years in prison.

“I think about that quote a lot; it’s very impactful,” Lydia said. “That speaks to the very practical way we are changing people’s lives.”

The Appalachian Prison Book Project is always looking for donations of new and used paperback books in good condition.

For a full list of how to donate books, requested genres, volunteer opportunities and the APBP mailing address, please visit their website: www.appalachianprisonbookproject.org