Inmate art exhibit opens at Bankhead House


"You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.  – Mahatma Gandhi

The sketch is simply titled “Home.” It’s an admirable effort but not particularly thought-provoking unless one knows that it was created by an inmate who may not get home for a long time or maybe never again. 

“Home” is one of the pieces on display now at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center as part of “Art on the Inside,” a traveling exhibit developed by Auburn University's Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP).

The program began in 2002 with Auburn alumna and project founder Kyes Stevens teaching poetry at Tutwiler Prison. The program now offers classes in arts, humanities and the sciences in 12 correctional facilities.

“When I got into the classroom, I met people who were scholars and artists, people who wanted to write and think and have their ideas challenged by other people. I was reminded of how humanity exists in all spaces. It gives people a voice and the ability to contribute to the world around them,” APAEP program coordinator Rob Hitt said during a reception held at the Bankhead House on Tuesday afternoon. 

The Walker Area Community Foundation, which operates the Bankhead House, collaborated with the Walker County Arts Alliance and Walker County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) to include approximately a dozen drawings by local inmates. The exhibit also includes a number of loaned pieces of art created over the years by inmates with local ties.

Every male inmate had an opportunity to create a charcoal drawing for the exhibit, according to TJ Armstrong, public information officer for WCSO. Those who showed promise were then offered the chance to work with pastels. 

The resulting artwork covers a range of images: a lighthouse, three crosses on a hill, cars, a skull, a Spongebob Squarepants look-a-like that has “God is good” scrawled on the side of the page.

There is no doubt that inmates have a diverse set of talents; the challenge is channeling that creativity. 

“They try to do it in ill ways with graffiti and running jailhouse tattoos, but when they put it toward something positive, it’s amazing. There are some pretty smart guys and pretty creative guys down there,” Armstrong said.

According to the APAEP mission statement, “education provides fertile ground for all people to express their creative voice and vision, explore inherent curiosities, and cultivate a lifelong relationship with learning.”

“Prisons are complicated,” Stevens told a Birmingham news station in January after receiving Auburn’s Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach. “All kinds of people are there. Whatever their circumstance, I assume they want to learn. They want a better future and have dreams and goals. Their situation doesn’t mean we should stop treating them like human beings.”

Participating in the program also has practical applications. Inmates can work toward a bachelor of science degree that combines business and human development and family studies. The hope is that upon release, individuals can use the knowledge they have gained to start a small business, avoiding certain roadblocks when they apply for jobs with a prison record, or present the degree as a sign to potential employers that they are worth a second chance.

According to an AU press release, the university is one of the few public land-grant institutions chosen to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, a federal financial aid program providing roughly a third of the tuition for students in prison. Programming is made possible through the U.S. Department of Education Experimental Sites program.

The art included in the current exhibit was created by individuals who have taken APAEP’s pre-college art classes.

A written introduction to the exhibit emphasizes the humanity of those who made it possible – “These works represent a human’s struggle to express – a human, an artist, a writer—molded and trained by a life to which most in general public populations cannot relate. Part of the experience of viewing these works is acknowledging the experience of creating in an environment that is frequently so contrary to nurturing creativity.”

The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 27. Admission is free.