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Untitled by D. W.

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Lifting Paintbrushes, Hearts and Minds

The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

In the words of Rob Hitt, outreach program manager for the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, “It’s not just a regular teaching job; it affects your heart in a different way.” Indeed, the hearts of both teachers and of those who have been incarcerated are changed through this pivotal program — and its effects are reverberating throughout the country, sharing not only memorable artwork but the humanity behind it. 

How was this program inspired? 

At its heart, APAEP was inspired by the students—people who took the risk to sign up for something new, to express themselves and their desire to learn. Our director, Kyes Stevens, had the opportunity to teach a poetry class at Talladega Federal Prison back in 2001, where she met people who changed the way she thought about education—who it’s intended for, and who actually has access to it. Her experience led her to found what would become the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, and the class she taught would be similar to the hundreds that would follow.

How does the process work? How do students find you? 

Currently, there are three main branches of APAEP: the Community Education Program, the College Degree Program, and the Community Education Resource Center (CERC). Each program offers classes three times a year in the spring, summer and fall terms.

Community Education classes take place at correctional facilities across the state depending on grant funding and teacher availability. The classes are modeled after freshman and sophomore level seminars but are tailored to be accessible to students with a variety of backgrounds. Class subjects include academic disciplines across the humanities, arts, social sciences and STEM fields. Enrollment is open to everyone at the host facility. 

The College Degree Program operates at Staton Correctional Facility and the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. After a lengthy application process, students are officially enrolled at Auburn University and begin taking classes for credit; each class is taught in-person and on-site. Students are working on earning a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies that focuses on Business and Leadership and Human Development and Family Science. 

CERC, located in Birmingham, was created for AU/APAEP students post-incarceration to support them as they navigate the re-entry process and prepare themselves for the next stage of their lives. CERC offers classes in Computer Skills, Financial Literacy, Communication, Professional Writing, the Arts, and many other subjects.

Potential students on the inside may see a flyer, an announcement in their facility’s newsletter, or attend an information session to learn about APAEP opportunities. At CERC, we promote ongoing and upcoming classes and resources through a variety of outreach efforts.

What art forms have sprung from the program? 

Each class that APAEP offers inside must be approved by the host facility’s warden, and so early in APAEP’s history, introductory drawing and watercolor painting classes—arts that did not require many complex materials—were most common. As we developed our organization’s professional relationship with the ADOC, we have been able to facilitate more advanced arts programming. For example, we have had classes in printmaking, fiber art, paper arts, self-portraiture, mixed media collage, as well as a number of large mural projects.

For students/artists who wish to showcase their artwork, we offer a couple additional opportunities. They can submit their work for consideration to be published in APAEP’s biennial Anthology of Words + Art, or they can donate their artwork to Art on the Inside, APAEP’s traveling art exhibit, which is on display periodically at venues and galleries across the state and nation.

How has the program enriched the lives of those in it? 

The students share their thoughts anonymously through course evaluations, so I’ll let one person speak for themself: 

“It’s scary to imagine what condition my mind would be in without APAEP’s classes. Without the assignments, I would have no opportunity to process new information, articulate a response and receive thoughtful feedback on this level. Sometimes, I feel like the only time I actually use my mind is when an APAEP instructor motivates me to, but after each effort, I’m better as a person and more able to help myself and those around me.”

During the pandemic, as one of our alternatives to in-person classes, we created The Warbler, a weekly educational newsletter that was distributed to hundreds of current and former students. Today, it is distributed at correctional facilities across Alabama, in over 30 states and in three other countries. If you or someone you care about would like to receive copies via email, please let us know. We would be happy to add you to our mailing list. 


  • Untitled by D. W.
  •  “Phoenix” by T. S.
  • “Winslow Holmes Imitation” by M. M.