123 hosts successful benefit

Best Friends performs at 123 Pleasant Street as part of the lineup in support of the Appalachian Prison Book Project.

The 123 Pleasant Street stage lit up for a cause Wednesday as bands played a benefit show for the Appalachian Prison Book Project.

Three acts: Almost Blue, Best Friends and Haley Slagle, took the stage to support APBP, an organization that works to fill book requests of prisoners in the surrounding Appalachian region.

"I thought it was great; I've got a couple buddies in the Appalachian prisons. It's a simple, good thing," John Casey, singer/multi-musician of Best Friends, said. "I think it went great. It was a good turnout for a Wednesday night, especially. It was a great opportunity to take advantage of and rock some people's faces off, and it was all for a good cause, so I'm happy with the night."

Two of the organization's founders, Mark Brazaitis and Katy Ryan, were on hand to enjoy the music and speak with supporters of the project.

Both Brazaitis and Ryan are English professors at West Virginia University.

"I was teaching a class in American prison literature in the fall of 2004, and I mentioned to my students that, as far as I knew, there were no projects sending free books into prisons in this area," Ryan said. "We carved out this six-state region that we decided to start sending books to, because there was clearly a need."

Reaching out took time, but Ryan said the response was worth the time and effort.

"After weeks of sending out postcards saying 'we exist,' we were receiving letters from all over the Appalachian region," Ryan said. "The need is enormous."

Getting books to prisoners is not always an easy task; many prisons have rigid restrictions regarding what books can be sent in.

Hardcover books and books with illustrations deemed inappropriate for inmates are just a few examples of the roadblocks the organization faces.

APBP is also unable to contribute to any of the regional jails because of a rule stating only corporations, such as Barnes & Noble, are permitted to donate reading material.

Despite the many obstacles, the Appalachian Prison Book Project has delivered roughly 10,000 books since the organization was created in 2004.

"Somebody was thrilled to be able to read the Harry Potter series, for instance, and wrote us to say, 'I've read it now, and I'm going to start all over again, because I liked it so much the first time'," Brazaitis said. "Somebody wanted 'Paradise Lost,' which is a very long poem by John Milton, and you wouldn't think that would be the typical prison book. Sure enough, a prisoner wanted that and loved it and wrote us to tell us he really enjoyed (it), so that was a nice thing to get."

The organization gets a variety of requests ranging from fiction to childcare.

The most requested book? The dictionary.

"A lot of people had abysmal educations and are trying to catch up in that regard," Ryan said. "I think a dictionary is not only a tool for reading and educating yourself, but I think it serves as almost an encyclopedia of information. It's sort of a compact volume that has all of this information in it," Ryan said.

APBP started with grant money awarded by West Virginia that has long since been used up.

Beyond the occasional paid graduate student, the organization relies solely on volunteers and donations. Book donations are typically strong due to close proximity to the Morgantown Public Library and WVU, although fundraisers like this must be held to cover their largest cost: shipping.

"The goal is simple; it's to get books in the hands of people imprisoned in the Appalachian region of our country," Brazaitis said. "Most of them will be coming back into our society, and in what shape do we want them back? Do we want them completely bitter and angry over everything that they've experienced behind bars, or do we want them to be able to find opportunities for themselves and become decent and productive citizens?"

For more information about the project, visit http://aprisonbookproject.wordpress.com/. There you can also read letters from grateful prisoners from around the region.

Emails concerning the project can be directed to appalachianpbp@gmail.com.