SOLACE. HOPE. GUIDANCE. HUMOR. WISDOM. ESCAPE. That is the potential
of literature, the power of education. It is

the transformation knowledge can provide to the 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the United States. 

“Thank you for your concern for those of us on the other side of the wall.” 

–Man imprisoned in Ohio

Because the numbers are so extensive, the criminal justice system can quickly become abstract. It is easy to forget and to take for granted what goes on inside the prison walls. But when you read a grateful note handwritten on a scrap of notebook paper, or hear women share their struggles and their hopes for the future, or sit in a circle of 30 individuals talking about a book, everything changes. The imprisoned become human. They become real.

West Virginia University students and faculty from across the humanities are striving to break down those barriers. A prison book project is going on 13 years strong. Classes are taught, and book clubs are shared inside prison walls. Think-tanks are preserving these initiatives on the inside and moving them forward. 

These are the efforts bringing the humanity of incarceration to life. 


A simple idea

Many prisons lack adequate libraries, and most people in prison are not able to purchase books. Prison book projects respond to that need by sending free books into prisons. It is a simple, yet powerful idea.

Studies have repeatedly shown recidivism rates decrease when the imprisoned have access to education. According to a report by the National Institute of Justice, prison-based education is the single most effective tool in reducing recidivism. “As (an) inmate doing time, I pass my time by reading because it keeps me out of trouble and it opens my mind to new things,” writes a man imprisoned in West Virginia. “When I get into a good book I am transported away from this place to the places in the books. I read about two to three books a week.” 

Founded in 2004 by English Associate Professor Katy Ryan, the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) seeks to fill this void. 

“We have to decarcerate. We have to move away from prison being the solution to so many social problems. Education, on both the inside and the outside, is going to be part of that transformation — it has to be,” said Ryan, the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor for Outstanding Teaching. “Education is a human right. Through a wonderful service-learning partnership, WVU and APBP are able to extend resources into spaces that are often deprived of educational opportunities.”

Developed out of a graduate course on American prison literature, the all-volunteer project serves more than 200 prisons across West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. The immediate need is always responding to letters — the project is generated entirely by letters from individuals inside the prisons seeking something to read. The project receives approximately 100 handwritten letters each week from imprisoned individuals requesting books, and has mailed more than 20,000 books to date to imprisoned individuals. 

“The word ‘lifeline’ comes up a lot in the letters. Having access to books and to a creative outlet can provide a lifeline to people who are cut off from so much and living in a tough environment,” Ryan said. “We don’t underestimate the power of any book at this point—you don’t know what new thought or door a book might open to somebody because they read a book at the right time.”

Headquartered in the Morgantown Public Library’s Aull Center for Local History and Genealogy Research, the project maintains a library of about 4,000 books at any given time. 

Volunteers make the project happen — over 1,000 individuals have volunteered since the Appalachian Prison Book Project’s founding. Volunteers organize the library, sort and open the letters, match the requests with books and wrap them in butcher paper to mail back to the prisons. 

“I will miss the simplicity of working at the Aull Center and physically opening letters and reading things from people and matching books,” said Lydia Welker, a Perryville, Mo., native, who graduated in May from the professional writing and editing master’s program. “It just combines so many things I am interested in — books, people, handwriting. It’s a great intersection of things I enjoy and lets me use my time well to help other people.” 


From the outside in 

Faculty across the humanities are taking their classrooms to prisons around north-central West Virginia. 

Through the federal Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, Ryan as well as sociologists Jim Nolan and Amanda Hall-Sanchez have developed courses to provide opportunities for students both inside and outside of prison to learn together. 

Inside-Out’s pedagogy is tailored to facilitate dialogue across differences. The structure brings together campus-based college students with incarcerated students for a semester-long course held inside prisons. 

While nearly any subject can be taught as Inside-Out classes, WVU’s courses focus on prison studies, including victimization, restorative justice and reentry. 

“The criminal justice system is set up so that it takes a snapshot at one time. You are the victim; I am the offender. Restorative justice is more like a video. You may be the offender today, but you were a victim yesterday,” Nolan said. “If you can see a story as it unfolds, you are better able to intervene and do something to make it right. The restorative justice model is about how you make the victim, the offender and the community whole again.”  

The WVU Inside-Out instructors strive to tailor the curriculum to their audience, which can be challenging since the students come from all walks of life and educational backgrounds. While most of the outside students are WVU undergraduates studying criminology, English and sociology, the inside students can range from having no high school diploma to Ph.D.s. 

“To see people out there who support them and care about their future and don’t just see them as an inmate ID number or a prison jumpsuit or the crimes they committed gives them a lot of hope to be able to change.”
— Mike Conroy

“You have to look at the facility, not just the security level. At the women’s facility you have to talk about trauma and victimization because that’s what’s bringing 85 percent of women into prison. It’s what they are experiencing when they are in and what they are dealing with when they get out,” said Hall-Sanchez, a visiting assistant professor in sociology. “It is interdisciplinary — that’s the spirit of it. Each outside student can come in with a different perspective, and each inside student is coming in with something. Some have formal education, some don’t. You are making life applicable to both. The humanities does a really great job in doing it — we thrive in that area.”

The class is centered around a circle. The students form a circle while sitting next to someone from a different perspective — inside, outside, inside, outside. While resources may be limited — no whiteboards, computers, internet or other technology are available in the prisons — the circle provides a safe space for discussion in an otherwise hostile environment, establishing a context where all of the students can encourage each other. 

“We provide a circle, a balance of power. We talk to each other as human beings, and we get beyond the front stage of what am I supposed to say and what do I really think. We try to get to that backstage of what do I really think, and we can learn from that,” Nolan said. “People come to the circle with different personalities, and some people like to talk more than others. Some people are less capable of articulating. But when they have that talking piece, it’s their time.” 

To overcome the nerves, fears, assumptions and stereotypes felt by outside and inside students alike, every Inside-Out class begins with a wagon wheel icebreaker to help students get to know each other and find common ground.

“Both the inside and outside students fear the stigma they might receive. On the first day of class, we just sit in a circle and talk about movies and favorite pets and if you’re an animal what would you be and cartoons and food and superpowers. And it becomes human. That’s the first thing that breaks the barrier — this humanistic aspect,” Hall-Sanchez said. “That’s social science in and of itself. It’s amazing when we can’t hear ourselves. They are just talking and laughing and it’s just this roar of excitement, and we look at each other and think ‘this is it.’” 

About 300 WVU undergrads have participated in Inside-Out classes since the first class was held at Pruntytown Correctional Center in 2006. 

Criminology and psychology student Mike Conroy stumbled upon the Inside-Out program after changing his major from mechanical engineering. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make much of a social impact as an engineering major. Because that was pretty important to me, I switched. My first criminology class was taught by (Hall-Sanchez), and through her class I got involved in the prison initiatives,” said Conroy, a senior from Cincinnati, Ohio. “I am really interested in why people do what they do, but also what makes people who they are — what paths people take, what decisions people make, why they make those decisions. You can see a lot of that in the prison work — the past experiences that made people who they are and how they overcame them.” 

Being a part of the Inside-Out class changed Conroy’s worldview of the criminal justice system. 

“From all you hear about on television and in the news, they are ‘the criminals,’ almost like a separate species. But to interact with them and hear their stories, they are just regular people. They could’ve been your next door neighbor,” Conroy said. “A lot of them have lost so much hope because they never had any reason to hope. They’ve only had reasons to stop hoping. To see people out there who support them and care about their future and don’t just see them as an inmate ID number or a prison jumpsuit or the crimes they committed gives them a lot of hope to be able to change.”

The limited resources in the prisons have also changed the way the professors teach in their on-campus classrooms. 

“The prison is not like your typical classroom. Some would think it’s a little archaic, but it’s going back to basics of that Socratic method — teaching and having that real dialogue because it gives a space for that,” said Hall-Sanchez. “I think it has actually improved my teaching inside the classrooms that have technology and warmth. It makes you appreciate those things, but it also makes me a better facilitator. You get back to basics and get at the core of what you are talking about without relying on all of this technology behind you.” 

WVU students interested in participating in an Inside-Out class in the Department of English can contact Ryan. WVU students interested in participating in an Inside-Out class in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology can contact Hall-Sanchez or Nolan. 

“This is so much more than a class—it’s an experience,” Hall-Sanchez said. “They realize there is really not anything different but a criminal conviction. They realize that they are so similar. It’s just this one choice that separates them.”

An English Ph.D. student from Missoula, Mt., Hammond participates in the bookclub initiative stand by the Appalachian Prison Book Project at the Hazelton, W.Va., prison compound.

Not your average book club 

The Appalachian Prison Book Project has started book clubs at both the women’s and men’s complexes at the Hazelton, W.Va., prison compound.  

“It is a powerful thing to be able to come together and talk about a book,” Ryan said. “That’s something we might take for granted out here, but that doesn’t happen very much inside of a prison.”

The book clubs meet every other week for about two hours and are facilitated by faculty, undergraduate and graduate students. 

The inside students select books to read from a list provided by the facilitators. Recently read books include Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” the 2016-17 WVU campus read.

“Every week we don’t make it is devastating to them. Every week we don’t make it impacts them in ways you can’t even describe. You have to be there. You have to go,” said Yvonne Hammond, an English Ph.D. student from Missoula, Mont. “One of the biggest disservices we have done to our society is divorce imprisonment from the public view. We don’t see those who we label as criminals. We don’t talk about them. We don’t look them in the face. We are not part of the punishment. We’re not a part of anything other than maybe being involved in jury duty, which a lot of people try to get out of. Because we don’t see them, we also don’t know what happens to them. We don’t see what happens inside. We think they get what they deserve, yet we don’t even know what that is.”

Many of the outside student facilitators are surprised by the direction the book club conversations often take.

“You just have to experience it. I’m constantly reminded after spending time with the men’s group that we are looking in the wrong places to bring light into the darkness,” said Valerie Surrett, a Ph.D. student from Brevard, N.C. “They always bring their own stories with them. Even if I’ve read a book a couple of times, I’ve never seen the perspective they bring. We tend to look at things through the character we most identify with. They just bring a whole different perspective. We talk a lot in our culture about entrenching and standing firm on your principles, and we had a whole conversation about how much more strength it takes to say ‘no,’ and ‘I’m wrong’ and ‘I’m going to choose a different path.’ Things like that have never come out of any class I’ve been in.” 

English major and co-facilitator Alex Kessler shared how the book club changed his outlook on higher education after dropping out of WVU for a semester. 

“One of the reasons I had initially dropped out of school was sometimes I have trouble morally being in a classroom of privileged college students. When you are discussing literature you are often discussing heavy topics, talking about those who are oppressed. There is so much talking about them without truly understanding them with people who don’t necessarily have the right, I don’t think, to talk about them. It can weigh on you,” said Kessler, a senior from Charleston, W.Va. “The second you start talking with them you forget they are incarcerated because they are so damn intelligent and kind and willing to give themselves to the discussion. There’s a certain level of realness that’s just not (on campus) because students are just here to do their thing and have that college experience. Then you go in and talk to the women and the men at Hazelton and they are living real lives that have had negative impacts.”

The graduate students are also finding ways to incorporate ideas from the book clubs into the undergraduate English courses they teach on campus. 

“The students in my literature and composition classes are benefitting from this as well. Last semester I assigned several of the same stories and poems that we were reading with the men’s group. I could talk to each group about that. I would bring in their readings and analogies and share this is how the guys read this one,” Surrett said. “By the end, my students knew my book club. They felt really connected with this group that they’re not legally allowed to be in connection with. Anything that can break down some of those barriers that separates ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is just powerful education.” 

The Appalachian Prison Book Project receives roughly 100 handwritten letters each week from imprisoned individuals requesting books, and has mailed more than 20,000 books to individuals.

Making their ‘voices’ heard 

Most Inside-Out classes conclude with a culminating project that allows the inside and outside students to collaborate on an issue important to them and to extend the project beyond the semester. 

“The Inside-Out perspective is we can create an environment, create a context where we encourage each other,” Nolan said. “If there is a stumbling block, such as not knowing how to use a computer, not knowing what questions to ask or how to ask questions or if the financial piece seems to complicated, we can create an environment to help people over the obstacles.”

Hall-Sanchez’s summer 2016 Inside-Out class at the Hazelton Bureau of Prisons Secure Female Facility developed Voices of Incarcerated Women Creating Empowerment through Safe Spaces, or V.O.I.C.E.S.S. Created by Voices United, the first women’s prison think-tank and only one of three in the world with the Inside-Out think-tank designation, V.O.I.C.E.S.S. encourages inside students to hone the skills learned from Inside-Out to develop safe spaces, both personally and interpersonally, and to share those skills throughout the prison. 

“We want to keep the spirit of Inside-Out going after the class ends. You have these programs that are team-developed by inside and outside members, and then they are carried on that way,” Hall-Sanchez said. “(V.O.I.C.E.S.S.) still has outside students going in after their credit hours have ended. It’s all volunteer. They are not getting credit now, not getting paid. But they are doing it because it meant so much to them. It doesn’t just change the inside. It also changes the outside.” 

The V.O.I.C.E.S.S. program features a two-part curriculum. The first focuses on dealing with your own demons and facing your own issues to reach a point where you have created a safe space for yourself and established a stable, healthy position. The second follows up on that idea to expand the safe space to help others reach the point of building healthy relationships, while in prison and after. Topics include anger management; support systems; emotional, physical and sexual abuse; and unhealthy relationships. 

“V.O.I.C.E.S.S. is about learning to forgive yourself,” said Audrey Laker, a junior criminology and psychology major from Cincinnati, Ohio. “It’s learning to live with the choices you’ve made — accept the things you can’t change, but change the things that you have opportunity to change and creating hope for what you can do when you get out.” 

While the V.O.I.C.E.S.S. curriculum is still in development, the ultimate goal is for the think-tank to be self-sustained on the inside. In addition to the Voices United think-tank, there are two other active think-tanks at the Hazelton compound working together to promote change and social justice, but inside and outside of the prison. 

“One of our goals for creating this program is for it to be self-sustaining where we don’t have to be in the prison for it to continue,” Laker said. “We want them to feel confident enough in themselves to be able to teach other people in the complex.” 

As seen through these stories, the prison system is more than an institution. For scholars of the humanities, teaching on the inside is more than just an opportunity to do the “right” thing. Rather, the limited resources, diverse student population, and potential to improve recidivism rates present an opportunity for scholars to adapt the discipline.   

“It involves us. It’s something that’s not far away anymore. It’s sitting right here with us,” Ryan said. “We’re all implicated in the incarceration rates. It’s part of our landscape. It’s part of our culture. It’s to all of our benefit to work toward minimizing the number of people who are locked up.”