Written by Michael Davis (B.A. '03)
The first piece of art Abigail Cook ever sold fetched her a 50-cent bag of potato chips.
Incarcerated at the Cobb County Detention Center, Cook had already decided she wanted to pursue a career as a visual artist. In jail, she began to draw portraits of those she was incarcerated with and create holiday cards. For the three months she served, from December 2019 to March 2020, it gave her a way to hone her skills and something she could trade for extra snacks.
Now a senior at Georgia State, Cook, 22, will graduate in May with degrees in Studio Art and Film and Media.
She’s the student winner of this year’s George M. Sparks Award, which each year recognizes the unsung heroes among faculty, staff and students at Georgia State — those who show they’re willing to go “the extra mile” with good humor and perseverance. The award is named for George McIntosh Sparks, the university’s president from 1928 to 1957.
Cook received the award during Georgia State’s annual Service Recognition Awards Ceremony, which took place April 12 at the Student Center.
As a student, Cook has excelled inside and outside the classroom, with her name appearing on the president’s list and dean’s list, and her advocacy work resulting in changes she hopes open more doors for those, like her, who were formerly incarcerated and looking to rejoin their communities.
She’s a communications fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights, and has worked with state lawmakers on legislation that would change how colleges and universities ask about an applicant’s criminal history. She’s also the co-founder of Beyond the Box Georgia, an advocacy group working to reduce stigma and open educational opportunities to formerly incarcerated students.
Released from jail March 12, 2020, Cook had spent the previous three months unaware of the growing pandemic threat. She went from being locked down in jail to being locked down at home — again — almost immediately.
“I was ready to get back out there. I was going to start at Georgia State in May 2020 and I wanted to build a new community around myself and start fresh,” Cook says. “I was really ready to see how I could become someone who is ready to serve the people around me, and it was like the whole world went on house arrest and I was back where I started.”
She had already been under pre-sentence house arrest for nearly a year and a half before serving three months related to 2018 felony charges.
While free on bond but confined to her home, Cook turned to painting in her parents’ garage and taking online business and marketing classes at Chattahoochee Technical College.
After reporting to jail in December 2019, she applied to Georgia State with the help of her mother, who transcribed Cook’s application letter as Cook dictated it over one of the five telephones she and 50 other women shared.
Her acceptance letter was the first email she read upon being released the next spring. Cook began classes that summer.
“As I began pursuing art, I found it was probably the best way to express my personal narrative, but also to humanize people who had experienced the criminal legal system and other negative facets of society, like homelessness and mental illness,” Cook says. “I found it was a really powerful way to bring people together, incite empathy and inspire conversation around difficult topics.”
Having decided to pursue a career in art, Cook focused on painting, photography and other 2-D arts, though she’s now interested in sculpture as well, and spends a good deal of time at Georgia State’s Edgewood Avenue studio.
She says her work is rooted in storytelling, with pieces entitled “We Are Womxn,” “Politics of the Mass Media” and “I May Never Be Free,” which depicts a person standing with a box of prison-like bars over their head. A detached pair of hands grasps at the bars, appearing to try to pull them apart.
While incarcerated, Cook says her eyes were opened to the inequities of the justice system, and the failures of society to protect the most vulnerable. Many of the women she met in jail, she says, had experienced traumas as children — traumas that are likely contributing factors in the acts that landed them in jail as adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Cook says she was inspired to bring attention to the mechanisms that keep formerly incarcerated people marginalized, particularly the questions on college applications that ask about criminal history and often deter would-be students from completing the forms.
A 2021 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) notes that more than 70 million Americans have been involved with the justice system in some capacity.
Over dinner at a Marietta Mexican restaurant, Cook says she and her friend Patrick Rodriguez, interim director of Georgia State’s Prison Education Project, founded Beyond the Box Georgia with about 50 members dedicated to working to change how colleges ask about applicants’ criminal histories.
“As I went through the system, I progressively became more aware of every lie I had been told by the media, by the government or by anyone else in my life about people who are encountering the system. And that’s what I hope to do for students,” Cook says. “As someone who is their age, who is their peer and is their friend, I hope to engage them in meaningful conversations to break down these stigmas that we’ve been fed our entire lives that don’t serve humanity, don’t serve the greater good and don’t serve public safety. They just don’t.”
Cook and other members of the organization have spoken to college and university audiences across the state, and to the University System of Georgia.
She says she’s also worked with state Rep. Gregg Kennard (D-Lawrenceville) on his bill to limit what college applications ask about criminal history. House Bill 427 was introduced this year and has an equal number of Democratic and Republican sponsors. Though it did not come up for a vote this year, it could still be considered during next year’s session.
“When people with criminal histories see the questions on college applications, they’re more likely to forget the application entirely and not complete it,” Cook says. “But to the people applying, it’s their chance out. It’s their chance to get a meaningful job. It’s their chance to not go to jail or prison again. It’s really a big opportunity.”
Photos by Steven Thackston