Lydia Welker is a technical writer and editor based in the Midwest. She volunteers as the digital communications coordinator for the Appalachian Prison Book Project and is passionate about the life-changing power of books and education.
In downtown Morgantown, West Virginia, nestled between the public library and an office building, you will find a historic stone home called the Aull Center. It looks out of place in the best way because—like the house in Pixar’s Up before it’s carried away on the breeze—it is a house with a yard, fighting to survive among concrete parking lots and tan buildings. On the second floor of this unmistakable building, you’ll find a small room stuffed to the brim with books.
There’s something special about a room full of books—the smell of the pages, the art on the covers, the dust lingering in the air, the chaos of mismatched spines on the shelves. And anyone who walks into this room in the Aull Center can sense that the people who spend time here love books, love reading, and love sharing those things with others.
The Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) is a small, grassroots nonprofit that sends free books and provides educational opportunities to people incarcerated in prisons and jails in Appalachia. Since it was founded in 2004, we have mailed over 65,000 books to people behind bars.
I discovered it by chance. APBP happened to be based in the same town as West Virginia University (WVU), which is where I attended graduate school, and a couple of faculty members in my department mentioned it in passing.
When I started volunteering with APBP, way back in January 2016, I was there because I love books, and I wanted to get involved with a local nonprofit. APBP was a perfect fit for me: I could support access to reading and education, meet people in the community, and surround myself with books. It seemed like a good way to spend some of my (rare) free time between teaching, research, and learning.
These days, I spend a significant amount of my (less rare) free time volunteering for APBP. I run the website, manage the social media and email accounts, and talk to/about/on behalf of incarcerated people every day. But back then, I didn’t know much at all about prisons or policing. I’d never heard of the prison industrial complex, and mass incarceration was not on my radar. I had certainly never come across the word “abolition” before, and I didn’t personally know a single person behind bars.
Volunteers at APBP read letters handwritten by incarcerated people in Appalachia. These letters are requests for books, so our task is to search APBP’s bookshelves, find the best possible match to what the letter writer is looking for, and get the package ready to go in the mail.
It’s these letters that started changing my perspective on incarceration.
By now, I’ve read thousands of letters from people behind bars asking for books, but there is one that I’ll never forget:
"Because of your book program sending me Michie’s West Virginia Code Annotated, I was able to litigate an amended sentence order from life without parole to eligibility for parole after serving 15 years. In other words, you helped save my life. Thank you."
It was written by a man incarcerated in West Virginia, and when I read his letter, I was overwhelmed with joy for him but also with deep anger—all it took to save his life was a book. It speaks not only to the power of books but also to the injustices of mass incarceration.
I also started reading books that helped me learn about the prison industrial complex and introduced me to the concept of abolition:
But the most impactful moments in my journey of learning about incarceration are more personal. Attending book clubs in a federal prison and talking about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with some of the most brilliant, creative people I’ve ever met. Writing back and forth with a man in an Ohio prison for years and getting that last letter, the one that said, “I wanted to let you know that in March, I go to a halfway house, so I will no longer be in prison here in Ohio. I do thank all of you that volunteer your time. SO HERE IS A VERY BIG THANK YOU. Take care.” (That one made me cry, cry, cry.) Hearing the stories of free people who had spent years behind bars about how difficult it is to rebuild a new life.
I have a lot to learn. We all do—especially those of us who are on the outside.
If you care about the environment, if you are worried about global warming, if you want to stop climate change, it’s time to start learning about incarceration, prisons, and justice.
Mass incarceration intersects with every major issue of our time (race, class, sex, gender, voting, abortion, bodily autonomy, worker’s rights, all of it), including climate change. This topic is often sidelined or ignored in these larger conversations about sustainability, energy, and the environment, but I would argue that incarcerated people are on the frontline of the fight against global warming.
Incarceration is used as a tool to silence climate protestors. Prisons and jails threaten the health of people and the environment—and these systems are not prepared for the worsening effects of climate change. In a year that is (once again) shaping up to be the hottest on record, I’m terrified for the people locked up who are being cooked alive in their cells.
People behind bars are especially vulnerable to climate change, and we must share their stories, center their voices, and include them in conversations about the environment.
Incarceration rates in the United States are staggering. We lock up 1.9 million people behind bars—more people per capita than any other nation. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by those numbers and the knowledge that fighting climate change and challenging mass incarceration requires societal change at levels we’ve never seen before.
But! There is good news. People have been doing this work—advocating for people on the inside, fighting for the rights of incarcerated folks, working to end mass incarceration in the US and beyond—since we first had police and prisons. Creating a better world requires community, and we have the power to scale our actions together.
Here are a few ideas to get started:
We can commit to small actions that change our perspective and give us tools to grow. That gives me comfort and hope, knowing I’m not alone.
Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!