Kyes Stevens and her prison arts project change women's lives
The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project raises self-esteem and provides a creative outlet.
Montgomery and Elmore, Ala.
On a sweltering day in June, Michelle Bankston stands hunched over a table in the rec room of a minimum-security prison in Montgomery, Ala., putting the finishing touches on a charcoal drawing of an ascendant bird.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project
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The bird, Ms. Bankston confesses, manifested itself almost accidentally – she had been drawing a maze of waves and flowers and sidelong scribbles before she noticed in the chalky whorls a head and wings.
"Sometimes it happens like that," she says with a shrug, wiping a blackened finger on her white prison-issue pants. "I'll be working on something from a dream, or I'll be envisioning things I want to do, positive things, and I'll start out with one thing, and end up with another. For me, art has always been like having a little radio playing in the back of my head."
Bankston, who has short, blond hair and a muscular build, has spent almost 20 years behind bars. She was incarcerated first at a medium-security facility here in Alabama, and then at a private prison in Louisiana (to relieve overcrowding, Alabama sends some inmates out of state), and finally here, at the Montgomery Women's Facility, a sun-soused cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the capital city.
"A while back I decided that I could either spend decades in the bunks, watching TV or playing cards," Bankston says, "or I could get out here and take the opportunity to write poetry and draw."
That she's been given this opportunity to do her art is testament to the work of Kyes Stevens, an avuncular and outspoken educator, poet, and Alabama native. Since 2002, Ms. Stevens has headed The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), which offers literature and art classes in a range of prisons across the state.
The program is funded by Auburn University and an array of grants. The teaching staff consists of five Auburn-based instructors and a rotating cast of teaching fellows from the graduate creative-writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
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Classes run for 14 weeks and are rigorously structured, like college courses, demanding a full commitment from students.
The teachers are "people who absolutely love teaching and learning for the sake of teaching and learning," Stevens says. "It is about nothing else. It just happens that this [inside prisons] is where our students are."