The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

By Christopher Zoukis

Developed by Auburn University, the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP) is committed to providing educational access and opportunities to prisoners in Alabama’s prisons.  By helping prisoners reconnect with learning aspirations, the program believes it can help prisoners embrace education and transform their lives positively for the rest of their lives. The program delivers “educational experiences in the arts, humanities, hard sciences, and human sciences.”  These courses have the potential to profoundly help prisoners redirect their perspectives about their pasts as well as their future lives.

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Coursework and ‘An Air of Purpose’

The program’s website reports that one prison warden could easily tell which inmates were involved with the program by their “air of purpose.”  This in itself is one of the program’s great benefits.  APAEP delivers a wide array of courses that provide intellectual stimulation and, of course, provide the inmates with an Auburn University transcript of completed coursework.  Although the program is not designed as a degree-track initiative, the participating prisoners are delighted to have college-level coursework under their belts.  Having this college experience behind them is often the catalyst they need to continue their education post-prison.

The program offers many different type of classes including “American Literature,” “Creative Writing,” “Southern Literature,” “Hunger Studies,” and “Intro to Engineering” to name just a few.  Moreover, courses change periodically so there are frequently new offerings. Unlike so many other higher education programs, APAEP is unique in that there are no previous educational requirements–only the “desire to learn.” This decided lack of formality is most attractive to prisoners who come to the program with varied and patchy educational backgrounds.  The courses are introductory college courses and run for about fourteen weeks.

Replacing that formality is a fundamental understanding of what prisoners bring with them to the table.  In Alabama, 65% of the inmates do not have high school diplomas.  Therefore, the courses invariably offer students a new view of what education can mean for them.  Since so many offerings celebrate the arts, they invite students to think critically about themselves and their own desire to embrace new learning paradigms.  Certainly in the ‘real’ world items like diplomas and GEDs are important, but these classes give inmates the foundation they need to move forward.  They also give prisoners the self-confidence to tackle life-long learning.

The Educators

Many APAEP instructors are university faculty as well as graduates of the university.  The program also relies on many student assistants to facilitate various program aspects.  In addition to regular staff, the program invites many poets, artists, and guest speakers to provide insightful seminars, workshops, and lectures.  Although their job is at its base to inspire a desire to learn among their prisoner-students, they often find that they do gain new-found inspiration as they appreciate the milestones that their students are capable of making in a short period of time.  Ultimately, educational programs like these are about helping people that do, quite desperately, need help to turn their lives around.  Therefore, participating in this program as either a student or teacher has had a profoundly positive effect on many.

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