In a storytelling course that examines systems of justice, UA students provide a platform for the voiceless.

By:    Date: 02-12-2017

Article by Ellen Johnson and Olivia Grider

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College students spend countless hours studying history, reading stories for English classes and examining current events, but it isn’t often that a course takes them on the journey of creating a fact-based story themselves.

The University of Alabama’s yearlong, multidisciplinary Anatomy of a Trial course gives students this opportunity. They choose a topic related to the Alabama or federal justice systems, then research the issue from a variety of angles, document their findings and arrange the content into a story they can share.

During the 2015-16 academic year, instructors Chip Brantley of UA’s journalism department and Andy Grace, who teaches documentary film, led five students in investigating and reporting stories surrounding the hostage crisis that occurred when Cuban detainees took over a cell block at a federal prison in Talladega, Ala., in 1991. The class produced a six-episode podcast series called In Fact that details events, profiles people who were present during the crisis and features interviews with professors and others knowledgeable about the circumstances encompassing it.

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Students Johanna Obenda [left] and Connor Towne O’Neill [middle] at Mariel Harbor, where they went to look for stories about the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

Brantley, a senior lecturer with a focus on emerging media, says the topic was both difficult and intriguing. “We wanted to find something that was a real storytelling challenge, something we could really dig our teeth into,” he says. “It was a dramatic story that was very trying for people involved.”

In August of 1991, Cuban detainees seized 11 hostages at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in an effort to stop all U.S. deportations of Cubans. The uprising involved 121 Cuban detainees in a maximum-security building and ended after 10 days, when 200 federal agents stormed the prison. Less than 30 hours later, 32 of the detainees were escorted onto a plane at Birmingham Municipal Airport and deported to Cuba. Although the raid lasted just three minutes and no shots were fired, the personal stories of the hostages, detainees and other inmates have stretched across decades and the world.

The students’ story begins with the 1991 uprising, but also incorporates information from Havana in 1959, Miami in 1980 and Vancouver, Canada, in 2016. The detainees were among 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, after the Castro regime gave Cubans wishing to emigrate to the United States permission to board boats at the port of Mariel west of Havana. American officials later determined 2,746 of the immigrants could be detained and deported because of crimes committed in the United States or Cuba.

Students investigated the nature and condition of the Cubans’ detention and say that according to the U.S. government, the detainees did not exist. The class uncovered poor living conditions and treatment of the detainees, many of whom were locked in their cells 23 hours a day.

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Photo taken during the Mariel boatlift.

Despite drawbacks at the prison, detainees had good reason to fear deportation. Rafael Peñalver Jr., a Miami lawyer students interviewed, told the New York Times in 1991 that 457 Cuban detainees had been sent back to Cuba since 1988, and neither human rights groups nor the prisoners’ relatives had been able to locate them after they were handed over to Cuban authorities at Havana Airport. This situation was known to detainees remaining in American jails.

To conduct additional interviews and broaden their outlook, students visited Havana, Cuba, for a week in December 2015.

When they arrived in Cuba, students had a concrete list of people they wanted to interview and places they wanted to go, but they found they had to be flexible and adapt. “By the end of the trip, that plan was out the window,” says Johanna Obenda, a senior majoring in history. “It was playing it by ear for sure.”

Brantley says the group expected to get a lot of answers to its questions by knocking on doors and making phone calls during their visit. “What we found was that it takes a lot more work and time to build trust in Cuba,” he says. “You can’t just go knock on strangers’ doors and expect them to talk to you.”

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Former Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Gary Leshaw looks at archived files of work he did on behalf of Cuban detainees in federal prisons.

Students still interviewed one of the detainees who returned to Cuba after the Talladega uprising and another detainee’s daughter, along with many locals and a counselor at the American embassy.

“Every time we interviewed someone, the experience of the project deepened for me,” says Connor Towne O’Neill, a graduate student in the creative writing program. “Making human connections, speaking face to face with the people whose relationship to this story is not an intellectual exercise or storytelling challenge, but rather a reality that has and will continue to have a large bearing on their personal lives, is a powerful human experience. It’s a privilege to do this work.”

O’Neill says the course confirmed his career plans and changed his perspective on several issues.

“It made me certain that this is the work I want to do and confident that I have the skills and experience to do it,” O’Neill says. “Reporting this project has made me re-think basically everything the story bumps up against – immigration, our relationship with Cuba, the role of prisons in U.S. culture, the status of the serialized nonfiction podcast in today’s media landscape.”

To discover the best way to execute the stories they wanted to tell, students did a lot of research on podcasts in general and serialized podcasts in particular, Obenda says.

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A Cuban detainee is led onto a plane at Birmingham Municipal Airport.

The six episodes of their final product consist of: an introduction about the uprising in Talladega, why students became interested in the event and background information about the Mariel boatlift; an examination of the legal and cultural circumstances leading to U.S. detention of Cubans in the 1980s; an inside look at the prison uprising; the students’ experiences in Cuba; the personal story of one former detainee now living in Vancouver; follow-up interviews that include reflection on the story and ruminations on the future.

Maria Beddingfield, a senior majoring in journalism, says she wishes the care and research that went into producing the story will inspire understanding and positive social change. “I hope it will make people think,” she says. “I hope it will also contribute to the conversation of how real the issue of mass incarceration is.”

Beddingfield says working across cultures and nations was a unique experience for her. “That helps in terms of widening your perspective of what the world is like and different lives people lead and the struggles they face,” she says. “It really puts into perspective for me what the issues are, what the actual problems are in the world.”

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A boat at Mariel Harbor when students visited.

During Anatomy of a Trial’s first year (2013-14), students did an in-depth study of a death-penalty case, detailing the experience of a man who had been on Alabama’s death row for nearly 30 years. In 2014-15, students investigated and reported on the murder of Jim Reeb, a white minister who was killed while participating in civil rights protests in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

Listen to this year’s podcast at infactstories.com. For more information about the Anatomy of a Trial course, contact Chip Brantley at chip.brantley@ua.edu or Andy Grace at agrace@ua.edu or 205-348-8245.