Teaching in Prisons

A teacher in the Prison Arts program helps a student participate in the class.
A teacher in the Prison Arts program helps a student participate in the class.

Alexa Tullett is used to large, full lecture halls on the first day of her “Introduction to Psychology” classes. Dozens of students fill the seats and flip through paper syllabi, where lectures, readings, and assignments take up most of the text on the pages. However, her first day of her “Science of the Brain” class last fall looked quite different— she traded a lecture hall for a prison.

Tullett, an associate professor of psychology, was the first Arts and Sciences’ Prison Teaching Fellow, a position that allowed her to forfeit one of her on-campus classes in exchange for the opportunity to teach at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. The program, run by the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project at Auburn University, has worked in partnership with UA’s College of Arts and Sciences for several years. Previously only MFA students received fellowships to teach in prisons, but the partnership has grown to allow faculty to do the same.

“I’ve been on the lookout for an opportunity to teach communities who don’t always have access to educational resources,” Tullett said. When she learned about the fellowship, Tullett knew it was the perfect opportunity to give back to her community.

Tullett, who also taught in a prison in fall 2017, took the opportunity to teach a revamped “Introduction to Psychology” class, to place emphasis on students’ interests. This time around, she found that her students wanted to learn about things that affected them before and during their time in prison, such as drug addiction or stress.

“In one of the classes, we talked about relaxation exercises because they were talking about how much stress they face,” Tullett said. “So we literally just sat there and clenched our muscles together and then relaxed them. To be able to teach them about things that are useful is really cool.”

In another class, Tullett’s successor, religious studies assistant professor Michael Altman, teaches a class called “American Religious History.” The class allows students to have conversations about religion in American society by discussing historical documents pertaining to the subject. In one session, Altman recalls a discussion focused on the revivals of the early 19th century.

“Students pointed out that the prayer meetings served as a social function by bringing together people who might not otherwise have had connections, and this built a sense of unity in the communities that had revivals,” Altman said. “Thus, revivals were less about some religious experience and more about experiences of belonging to these new communities on the frontiers of America.”

Altman explained that, while the material learned in his class at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer is relatively similar to the material he teaches at UA, other aspects are quite different. Instead of using traditional tests, assignments, and grading systems (which the Prison Arts program does not allow for non-credit classes like Tullett and Altman’s), he has focused on discussions and feedback. This has been as rewarding for him as it has been for his students.

“As a teacher, taking the grading out has made me enjoy the teaching a lot more, because I can just focus on the conversation with the students, on the discussions in the course,” Altman said.
Both Altman and Tullett said that, while their classes were smaller, the enthusiasm and hard work they received from their students made it feel like they were teaching a class at UA. Each class has only about 15 students, but many more sign up to participate.

“I think that the prison community, specifically, is very underserved and very marginalized, and there are a lot of prisoners who really want to take classes,” Tullett said. “It’s a group of people who don’t have access to those resources often, and they are very happy to have it.”

The two also say they will always value having taught in a prison, and it’s something they wish all academics could do.

“I believe the single best predictor of whether or not a person will go back to prison is whether they get a job once they’re released,” Tullett said. “And the more we can educate people in prison, the more prepared they will be to get jobs afterwards.”

“We are in one of the most—if not the most—incarcerated states per capita, in the most incarcerated country in the world,” Altman said. “We are state-paid educators in that context. I think that puts a little bit of responsibility on us to serve the students in these prisons.”