As Kyes Stevens sifts through her mail, she stumbles upon a handwritten letter. A grin forms on her face as she quickly opens the envelope and reads a Thank You letter from one of her students.
He is a student in the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project, a program through the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University that provides education opportunities to prisoners in Alabama.
He may be a prisoner, but he has become an artist.
“I founded this program to help change prisoners’ lives,” says Stevens, founder and director of APAEP and a poetry professor at Auburn University. “Sometimes I get letters from my students and I just cry. They tell me how thankful they are for what we do and, for some of them, it makes waiting for death more worthwhile. They’ve gained a purpose.”
The classes APAEP offers are college-level. If the students finish the work for the course, they can receive a Continuing Education Unit (CEU).
Stevens says many of the prisoners sign up for a class because they are bored. But by the end of the course they realize they enjoy it.
“One of the students wrote me and said he liked the class and found out that he was OK at writing poetry,” Stevens says. “Then he began to realize that he had the ability to achieve goals and wanted to get his welding certificate.”
That’s what Stevens strives for – sparking confidence in her students.
She says the students are predominantly men, and after they develop that confidence they have a different perspective on life and of others.
They gain pride and they challenge their children to learn, just as they have. It’s like an epiphany to them, Stevens says. Education becomes important and they want their children to have the same mindset so they don’t end up in their position.
It’s a pay-it-forward mentality of sharing what they’ve learned with others so that others may want to learn too.
One way they share what they’ve learned is through a traveling exhibit. The students’ artwork and poetry is showcased in St. Louis, Virginia, New York, Atlanta and other places in the country. The next exhibit will open in Birmingham on Feb. 11 at Space One Eleven.
Stevens says the exhibit is a physical way of revealing the students’ accomplishments.
“Ninety-five percent of prisoners will come out of jail at some time,” Stevens says. “Would you want them to have developed a new mindset or come out just as bitter as they went in? We want to change their lives so that when they get out of jail, they don’t get caught up in those same bad things.”
She says her students have pride and they don’t get in trouble any more. They are just people who made mistakes at one time.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t give them a chance and try to change them,” Stevens says. “It’s all about human beings being good to human beings.”