By Kelsey Davis
The learning experience is as life altering for the professors as it is for the pupils when the classrooms are set in prisons across central and northern Alabama.
Seeds for The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project were planted in 2001 when Kyes Stevens, founder and director, received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to begin the program.
After Stevens received the grant, she began teaching poetry in a correctional facility, and quickly developed a passion for her incarcerated students.
“Just think to yourself, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life?” said Stevens. “Would you want to be measured by that for all of eternity? That’s not the sum total of who you are, it isn’t for all of these people.
“They’re mothers, they’re fathers, they’re brothers, they’re sisters. They like Christmas, they want to be at their kids’ birthdays, to go to their mother’s funeral, to be around their family. They want the same things we want. They’re not different.”
Since its birth, the program has grown to serve a dozen prisons in Alabama and now offers courses in various types of literatures, arts and histories.
The classes aim most importantly to educate, but also to motivate and to challenge.
“I’m able to increase the challenges (of the class) because you start to build trust to the degree of them knowing that I’m there to teach them how to draw,” said Barb Bondy, Auburn associate professor of art. “If I push, it’s to get them to increase their skills. Their sense of accomplishment or recognition that they have ability becomes very apparent.”
Bondy said she would often bring in project results from her incarcerated students to show her students at Auburn.
“I would encourage my students here to work harder because the work (of the incarcerated student) often had more effort applied to it,” Bondy said.
Without fail, APAEP professors see a sincere application of abilities and a thirst for education unmatched by the typical undergrad in their incarcerated students.
“One of the things that they (the incarcerated students) unfailingly teach me is perseverance and to not make excuses,” said Andrew Shotts, Auburn GTA and APAEP literature professor.
“You see a guy who got attacked two weeks ago,” Shotts said. “He’s got twelve stitches somewhere, he can hardly walk. He’s coming to class, and he’s not complaining.”
Shotts recalls an elderly student who as a boy wrote a poem about the day that J.F.K was assassinated. For decades the man held on to the poem, waiting for someone to help him with what he had written. By the time Shotts read it, it was faded with age and the writing was barely visible
“It’s a humbling experience to meet a man who is 60 or 70 years old and will never see the light of day outside of the prison walls, and then to see the joy in his eye when you hand him back three paragraphs of comments on a poem,” said Shotts.
Throughout the duration of the course, professors say changes in the students are evident. They learn patience and dedication. They grow in confidence and optimism. They exhibit a change that is physically visible.
But as the courses affect the prisoners for the better, the prisoners affect the professors to that degree and higher.
“I think that my students fundamentally changed me as a human being,” said Stevens. “I think that I always thought that I was accepting and progressive and open minded and compassionate.
“I think my students made me prove that I was going to be those things, that I was going to view the world through the lens of compassion rather than hatred and contempt.”
(This article was first published on The Auburn Plainsman and is used here by permission)