Freedom to Write: The University of Alabama Prison Arts Fellowship

The most direct route between the William E. Donaldson Prison Facility and Tuscaloosa, Alabama winds through the bucolic hills of the Cumberland Plateau, along the Black Warrior River. It’s a road that Brett Shaw came to know well while serving as a University of Alabama Prison Arts Fellow. In 2017, Shaw led a class on rationality for thirteen students at the facility.

Founded in 2001 by the poet Kyes Stevens and based out of Auburn University, The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project provides classes for over 3000 incarcerated people across the state. At UA, two Department of English MFA students are selected as Prison Arts Fellows each semester, and two former MFA’s, Shaelyn Smith and Robb Hitt, serve as APAEP’s Program Coordinators. In conversations with former Prison Arts Fellows, one theme became clear: teaching in the project is intensely rewarding and profoundly disquieting.

While the APAEP began as an organization primarily bringing creative writing to incarcerated students, it has built a diverse curriculum that ranges from studies of popular music to debates about epistemology. Emrys Donaldson, who minored in Cognitive Science as an undergraduate at Cornell, has spent much of their MFA experience thinking about the ways we communicate with animals. Donaldson’s course explored animal cognition, delving both into the science of brain processes and into the ways in which animals think. The course got into the minds of animals as varied as elephants, cetaceans, cephalopods, dogs, cats, snakes, and spiders.

Likewise, Shaw’s pre-MFA background as an accountant gave him a basic knowledge of economic concepts that informed his course, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. The course examined texts from behavioral economists and social psychologists. Despite his economics background, Shaw admits that he was a novice on the subject and yet is fascinated by what it reveals. “I’m interested in our minds’ flaws that cause us to act the way that we do,” Shaw said.

The students at Donaldson Prison Facility show a willingness and ability to delve intensely into a subject, which creates a learning environment unlike the typical college classroom. “Students are so thoughtful in the space at Donaldson Prison Facility,” Shaw said. “Instead of wondering, ‘How do I answer the question correctly?’ they are more interested in getting to the heart of the question itself.”

Donaldson concurs that “Everyone is engaged. There’s no technology. People look up words they don’t know. Most of my students bring dictionaries to class. Because it’s a privilege, because they want to be there, they take the class seriously.” Going in, Shaw says that, “I knew I was going to have students who made me look at subjects in a completely different way,” but found it an “honor, a challenge, and a privilege to teach in that space.”

Teaching in APAEP brings knowledge that goes beyond the classroom. Instructors often develop an awareness of the core difference between their students’ situation and their own: their students lack basic freedoms that we take for granted. “We’re so used to the paradigm that people are free, period,” Shaw said, “To be in a space where that’s obviously not the case…when you leave, it’s jarring. I get to drive; I get to go to a home—that is a privilege that I have. I get to hang up pictures. I’m not told to go to a specific location; I can’t be reassigned at any given moment.”

Like Shaw, Donaldson appreciates the return to routine. “I go to the same gas station every time after class to stress eat a bag of cheddar puffs,” Donaldson said with a sharp laugh, “which is not the worst thing, to be clear.” Shaw and Donaldson both noted that, in orientation, instructors were warned that teaching in APAEP will likely exacerbate any stress-related bad habits—if you drink, you’ll drink more; if you overeat, you’ll overeat more. “I think about how I take my freedoms for granted. I go to Monarch Espresso Bar to study. The day after my first class, I went to Monarch and got a latte. Some of my students are never going to have a latte again. That juxtaposition has been really jarring.”

These realities make teaching in APAEP an intrinsically different experience than teaching undergraduates at Alabama. It’s more difficult and more emotionally taxing. To hear Donaldson and Shaw discuss it though, those challenges are met with greater rewards. Instructors gain important practice in organizing and running classrooms, learning to manage time, and maintaining authority. They support a project that views education as a right, and they provide education to people who are often denied it, an activity that’s as satisfying as it is necessary.

–Wells Addington