Dec 15, 2017

Changing the System with Alabama Prison Arts (Part 1)

by: Laura Kochman

Mass incarceration is an issue that affects the entire United States in complicated ways, and our Restorative Justice program is just one of many efforts to address it. Kyes Stevens leads the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, which offers arts and humanities-based higher education in prisons across one of the most highly-incarcerated states. While our program works with people who are currently or formerly incarcerated, APAEP focuses on providing learning opportunities for those who are currently incarcerated, and it is the only such program in the Alabama prison system. We brought Kyes together with Robyn Buseman, longtime Program Director for Restorative Justice, and asked them both a few questions.

Read Part 2 here >>

How do you relate to the term Restorative Justice? 

Robyn: My definition, and the way it’s defined in the state of Pennsylvania under the Juvenile Act, is the opportunity to view the criminal justice system as a triangle. So you have the person that committed the crime, the community, and the victim making a triangle, and they all have equal say in whatever happens. It’s restorative, healing the harm within the community, with the victim individually—whether it’s restitution or giving back, mediation—and the person who committed the crime is offered an opportunity to make amends, but also to develop competencies and skills to go on a different path. It’s a holistic way of looking at these issues. At Mural Arts, we see art as a way to teach skill, to give back to the community, to create community engagement, and we developed a formal work program so that we can pay young people on probation to engage in the arts in their communities.


  • Guild members at the B Street Bridge paint day. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Guild members and Restorative Justice staff at the B Street Bridge paint day. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Kyes: It’s fascinating, because it’s not a term I hear used much in the South. I hear it more in the Northeast and out on the West Coast, and I think part of the reason why is because there is a much higher density of all kinds of programming—for people while they are incarcerated, bridging the gap for when they come home, and trying to increase bonds and strengthen communities. We are a little behind the curveball down here on that. So I’d say that a lot of our work has a restorative process to it, but at this point we are not aligned with having our students directly address any kind of illegal behaviors that brought them to incarceration. In most circumstances, we don’t know what our students have done. But one of the things that’s really interesting in terms of how and why we do what we do is that this is a little more of an indirect path, in terms of giving people the tools to discover things on their own. You guys know this from these massive murals that you work on—you find out about a different level of humanity through the arts, and it is this beautiful language that crosses all kinds of barriers. For our students, the arts and humanities are a way for them to see value in themselves, and once they are able to see value in themselves, then they are able to view their lives and the people in their lives and the actions of their lives very differently.


  • The beginning of the mural painting process at Bibb County Correctional Facility. Summer 2016. Photo courtesy of APAEP.

  • The completed mural project at Bibb County Correctional Facility. Winter 2016. Photo courtesy of APAEP.

If I can tell you a story—we have used Cindy Burstein’s documentary, Concrete, Steel & Paint, in some of our classes. The first time I ever showed it at a correctional facility, I was sitting behind a row of students, watching them watch the film, and for a couple of guys—their body language, they bristled a little bit, they got uncomfortable. It was in the sections where victims and victims’ rights advocates were talking, and I think actually it’s good to have discomfort like that and then to have space to talk about it. So at the end of the film, I said, “All right, so some of you got upset.” And one of the guys in the group just had tears streaming down his face, and he said, “I’ve been incarcerated for 15 years and no one has ever asked me to think about my victim.” It’s horrible. You’re not contributing to any kind of positive outcome for anyone that way. The film has been an amazing way to have some dialogue about the power of art to heal and to communicate, and to build communities. The guys are always like, “Okay! So when are we going to do murals? When are you going to send us out into Birmingham?” I tell them I don’t know that yet, but you know, they would love to.

Can you talk about some of the other differences between these two programs, such as urban vs. rural? 

Kyes: I think the geography definitely plays into possibilities with programming. In states that have major metropolitan areas, there tends to be—at least there used to be—a higher percentage of [incarcerated] people coming from those larger metropolitan areas. There is some shift right now in terms of the incarceration rates in rural America, associated with drug use. We don’t have connections all over the state when students get out, because we have folks who are returning to Birmingham or Mobile or Montgomery, which have a decent amount of services and potential for them to get involved in education or community service. And then we have people going back to a town of 1,500 people, and there are no services for them when they re-enter. So one of the things I see about the value of the arts is that the arts don’t have that start-and-stop boundary. Even the person who goes back to that town of 1,500 people, if they decide that they like to write poetry and read, then they can potentially find an ally in the community that likes those things. Or maybe there’s a building in the downtown that needs a mural, so that they feel inspired and see possibility where they used to see no possibility.

Robyn: The only state prison that we work in is located really close to Philadelphia, and then we also work closely with the county jail in Philadelphia and the probation department. So we’re lucky in that we’re very, very localized. We have access to all the networks here in Philadelphia, and Mural Arts has a longstanding reputation so we have that to go on. It is hard when we work in the state prison and guys go to other counties or other parts of the state, and we lose connection with them. They’re able to do our programming because the murals are done on cloth—the murals are done inside and then we install them, so that makes a nice connection, too. We also do art shows where they can exhibit and sell their artwork, so that’s another connection to the outside. A lot of the guys we work with in state prison are lifers, so that makes it difficult, because they might not ever get out. Those guys who are in the movie you mentioned, Tom and Zafir, they’re still at Graterford. I saw them last week.

Kyes: That’s heartbreaking.

Robyn: Yeah, they’re lifers. And in Pennsylvania, life is life. There’s no parole.

Kyes: So they can’t appeal to a judge to reconsider a sentence [in Pennsylvania]?

Robyn: Only if you were sentenced before you turned 18, as a juvenile. There are about 500 in Pennsylvania—we have the most juvenile lifers. Zafir was 18 or 19, just a little bit over the age limit, so he’s not getting his case reviewed.

Kyes: That’s hard. We do see people doing life without parole, individuals who take our non-credit classes at the maximum-security facilities that we work with, and even officers and wardens will say that they have redirected their lives. When an officer tells you that somebody should have the opportunity to go out and contribute and make a better world—I wish that we had a system that could listen to that. So many of our students want to go back and help young people who got caught up in the same stuff that they did, and help them see a different option for their lives. I think that’s true at every facility I’ve been in across the country, and at every conference and program. Folks want to contribute to a solution.

Robyn: Recidivism after murder is some of the lowest—I mean, it’s less than one percent. That alone is a good reason to release people. And then you have the whole problem of aging in prison. People have dementia and mental health issues. We have “Three Strikes” laws, we have these harsh sentencing guidelines that lead to this.

Kyes: I don’t want to, and I never will, diminish the suffering of victims, but I also feel like we could do a better job as a society creating structures that don’t push people into circumstances where they make bad decisions. There are some things we could do as a nation to help with that, instead of making the assumption that everybody has the same starting point.

Students and Teaching Artist conversing during a class meeting for the initial planning stages of a mural project in the visitation room at Bibb County Correctional Facility. Summer 2016. Photo courtesy of APAEP.

Speaking of starting points: How do you put your own privilege to work, either as an organization or as an individual? 

Robyn: Well, I’ve been in criminal justice since the early 1970s, but I’ve never been incarcerated. Since I’ve been made aware of this issue, we hire a lot of people that have been incarcerated. So Jesse [Krimes] and Russell [Craig] have led mural projects, and Dawan [Williams] works at Mural Arts full-time now. I’m trying to bring people that have that experience into the group so that they can really teach, and we can help support them. Really for me, I can put my privilege to work in conversation with people when they start talking about crime. If I meet somebody at a dinner, and they start in on locking people up, I can say, “You really need to think about what you’re saying.” And I try to be mindful that I can’t relate to what everyone has been through. I don’t really know what it feels like to live in North Philadelphia with no running water and no heat—I don’t know what that feels like. It’s important to just admit it.

Guild participants speak at the Feltonville Rec Center mural dedication. Center: Dawan Williams, Guild Coordinator. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Kyes: Yeah, it’s something that brings up a lot of larger issues. When you start looking at institutions of higher education, and institutions of art and poetry, all of these things are very much established and maintained by white privilege. The people who have privilege get to go to the university, for the most part, which means they get to get a degree and a certain level of income that allows them to make decisions about the kind of jobs they’re going to take. So any time I go to an Arts in Corrections conference, or the Conference on Higher Education in Prison, it is starting to shift a little bit but it used to just be a sea of white women. That’s complicated, but we have to ask the question of why, and what can we do as organizations and institutions to shift that? That’s what you’re doing, bringing in people that have been part of the system, within your program. For us, it’s something that we struggle with—finding formerly incarcerated students to work with [APAEP]. But we continue to ask, why does this hurdle exist, and what can we do to change it? I do think it’s an issue, and I don’t think it’s doing anybody any favors to ignore it.

My history thesis I did—it seems like, a million years ago now—was basically on complications of moral and social uplift coming out of Extension [schools]. Extension came out of the universities, so it was well-meaning—and I’m using my air quotes—“well-meaning” people stepping into areas that did not have the same information that the university had, and trying to share that. For example, someone would come in and say, “I’m going to teach you how to can your vegetables properly, which is going to reduce botulism,” which is great, because it’s not going to kill your family. And then the next time, they would come and say, “Well, you need to paint your house like this and you need to make these clothes to look like this.” So that’s the thing we’ve got to be mindful of: making all these decisions about what we think a given population needs, based on our privilege. In our field, we have to respect each other and love each other enough to call each other out when we see it, because I don’t think anybody in this field really wants to perpetuate that.


Last updated: Dec 18, 2017

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