By Mary Crawford
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 the lives and the 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 the 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.”