TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The late 19th century America education pioneer Horace Mann once said, “education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
And, with that noble ideal in mind, The University of Alabama, since 2007, has partnered with Auburn University’s Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project to provide the state’s incarcerated population with a second chance through higher learning.
Kyes Stevens, founder and director of the program, said UA initially supported the program by providing teaching fellowships to more than 40 graduate students from 2007 to 2018. In the fall of 2018, the partnership expanded to include UA faculty teaching in the prisons.
“With the faculty program, we asked how could we expand the offerings and resources that the universities have to populations that don’t normally have access to that,” Stevens said. “It’s really amazing that our two biggest universities invested in this population which has significant educational needs.
“And there is no shortage with us giving each other a hard time with the ‘roll tide’ and ‘war eagle’ thing.”
Dr. Alexa Tullett, UA associate professor of psychology, taught the University’s first class in the program last fall. During the spring 2019 semester, Dr. Michael Altman, UA associate professor of religious studies, taught American Religious History to about 15 students at Donaldson Correctional Facility.
“The program started out with classes like creative writing and arts being taught, but now it’s expanded to include history and psychology classes,” Tullett said.
Tullett, who taught at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, said the program allows inmates to take college courses free of charge within the prison system. For each course they complete, they’re given a certificate.
Should participants choose to continue their education following their release, Stevens said APAEP offers college credit for the courses that can transfer to colleges and universities.
“This is the one thing I know how to do – teach,” Tullett said. “Being a professor at UA is a very nice job, and I have a lot of advantages. So, this one skill that I have is needed by a population that is often ostracized and ignored.
“Doing this just felt like an opportunity to use the skill that I have in a positive way.”
Tullett said students at the prisons are diverse in their educational levels and backgrounds, but they are eager to learn.
“People who are taking classes in prison are really motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn, so you get a level of engagement and investment that’s a little bit deeper than students at a traditional college campus,” she said. “You’re also teaching to a wide variety of ability levels like people who are struggling to read and write well while some inmates already have degrees from universities.”
Another difference in the classes taught in the program than those taught on campus is that the students in the APAEP don’t receive grades. They’re given assignments and evaluations, and feedback from the professor is given.
“That changes their mentality,” she said. “So instead of trying to get a grade, they’re just trying to learn what they can in the class.”
Tullett said she’s learned a lot from the students she taught at Tutwiler, and she hopes that they learned just as much from her.
“It’s easy to have the mentality that you couldn’t be the person in prison, but the truth is, you could be. The reason why many of us aren’t is the advantages and privileges we’re mostly blind to that we didn’t necessarily earn. The line between my students at prison and myself is blurrier than I thought.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.