Jack Walker Published

Morgantown Nonprofit Mails Books To People Incarcerated Across Appalachia

A woman with a high ponytail wearing glasses, a white N95 mask and a black shirt sits at a table while opening a cardboard Amazon shipping box filled with books. She sits in front of a window draped with sheer white curtains with daylight streaming through. To the right in the background are shelves covered in books.
Danielle Stoneberg opens a box of books donated to the Appalachian Prison Book Project in downtown Morgantown's Aull Center April 27.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Each week, volunteers comb through a stack of more than 200 letters on the second floor of the Aull Center, a historic twentieth-century home in Monongalia County now owned by the Morgantown Public Library.

Sent by people incarcerated across Appalachia, most of these letters contain the same request: a new book to read.

Some prisons in the United States have their own libraries, but often with narrow inventories and limited hours of operation. In turn, more than 50 organizations across the United States and Canada mail incarcerated people books missing from their library shelves.

In West Virginia, one nonprofit — the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) — has distributed books throughout the region since 2004. In that twenty year span, APBP has mailed more than 70,000 books, according to Communications Coordinator Lydia Welker.

People in Appalachian prisons can submit written letters to APBP, requesting books they would like to receive through the mail, Welker said. APBP then examines each prison’s policies and connects readers with the book they requested, or one from a similar genre or subject area.

Volunteers join the project from all different backgrounds. Some are advocates for prison reform. Others, like Morgantown High School student Lilly Staples, do it from a love of books and desire to expand reading access.

A hand writes on a rectangular package wrapped in white paper with a blue and white pen. The package has already been stamped with other words, including "Media Mail" in a circular stamp and the address of the Appalachian Prison Book Project in a rectangular stamp. Next to the rectangular package is a pair of scissors, a sheet of label stickers and in the bottom left can be seen the corner of a smartphone.
Danielle Stoneberg prepares to send a book from the Appalachian Prison Book Project’s Morgantown office to an Appalachian prison.

Photo Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s a really nice space for volunteer hours,” Staples said while volunteering at the Aull Center in April. “I’ve always loved to read, and so helping, giving other people that chance in their position really means something to me.”

Still, this work can be tricky. Books with divisive or controversial content — like violence and nudity — tend to be rejected outright by facility staff.

Other rules are subjective, changing from facility to facility. Welker said one prison even refused to take in a copy of The Lord of the Rings because it had illustrations of a fictional map.

“These rules are not set in stone,” Welker said. “It’s up to the discretion of whoever’s working in the mailroom or whatever prison system it is to decide if a book gets inside.”

Occasionally, books APBP sends are rejected by prison staff. APBP keeps a running list of which books are accepted at which facility to ensure that resources are not wasted.

Welker said APBP’s most common request is a dictionary. Other widely sought-after texts include textbooks, as well as books that contain medical or legal information.

A stack of red books sit on top of a shelf, many with the word "Dictionary" clearly visible on their spines. The red stacks sit in front of a pale green wall. On the shelf below can be seen stacks of language dictionaries, including "French" "German" and "Anglais". A window to the left of the shelves are draped with sheer white curtains and trimmed with light colored wood.
Reference books are some of the most requested items from the Appalachian Prison Book Project.

Photo Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

For the staff at APBP, this only further exemplifies the gaps in educational resources available to people who are incarcerated.

“It goes to show how much people need access to the outside world,” she said. “Very literally, information about how this world works.”

Mass incarceration in the United States often cuts people off from books and educational resources, which makes the work of APBP and similar prison book projects important, Welker said.

In 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 355 of every 100,000 U.S. residents were incarcerated — one of the highest rates globally.

Additionally, the national incarceration rate of Black residents was nearly five times the incarceration rate of white residents in 2022. Hispanic residents were also incarcerated at nearly double the rate of white residents nationally.

Without groups like APBP, thousands of residents — and a disproportionate number of Black residents — would lack access to reading resources.

For many staff members and volunteers, working with APBP has opened their eyes to realities like these, and the daily challenges that incarcerated people face across the United States.

Before joining APBP, mass incarceration in the United States “was never really something that seemed really direct to me,” said Danielle Stoneberg,

“It was never really something that seemed really direct to me, and kind of in my face,” Danielle Stoneberg, prison outreach coordinator, said.

Cardboard boxes sit on an oriental carpet on the floor in front of floor to ceiling shelves packed with multicolored paperback books. Light streams in from the left of frame.
Stacks of books sit on the shelves of the Appalachian Prison Book Project’s Morgantown office, ready to ship to people who are incarcerated.

Photo Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“As I started to have these experiences of going inside and reading letters, and also just having conversations with people, … I started to realize that I have a lot more friends than I thought, who had loved ones who have been impacted by the system,” she said.

Stoneberg said prison book projects like APBP allow volunteers to acknowledge the humanity of people who are incarcerated and work to improve their lived experiences.

“Many of us who work here with APBP, we believe that individuals shouldn’t be judged for the mistake that they made. We wouldn’t want to be judged for the worst thing that we ever did,” she said. “That’s why I sit on the phone for 20, 30 minutes on hold with a prison just to get hung up on, or not get the answer that I want.”

Stoneberg said this work is an important step toward making a difference in the U.S. prison system. Now, she is encouraging others to get involved in the project, too.

“What I would tell people is go ahead and have these experiences,” she said. “See if that makes you believe in the humanity of people who are incarcerated.”

For more information on the Appalachian Prison Book Project, visit the project’s website.

Chris Schulz contributed reporting to this story.