Saving Lives with Shakespeare

Jean TrounstineBy Jean Trounstine

Can you imagine teaching Shakespeare to men in solitary confinement?  And by that I mean men who are actually locked in 23 out of 24 hours a day behind metal doors with only a slit to see through into the hallway?  And along with that, try picturing a woman who sits in that hallway, coaching those men as they speak Shakespeare’s lines aloud talking to other men who they cannot see?

Image: Jean Trounstine
Image: Jean Trounstine

This is the mission of Laura Bates, an amazing woman who is an associate professor at Indiana University and in 2003 began teaching in Wabash Correctional in Indiana.  In an article for an Indiana State U publication, Bates says “We are the only Shakespeare program in the segregated unit in solitary confinement anywhere in the world….Never before attempted….never duplicated either.”

The process according to the article:  “Two officers escort each man into an individual cell in a separate unit inside segregated housing. Bates, as shown above, sits in the small hallway between eight individual cells with the imprisoned men sitting behind metal doors peering, talking and listening through open rectangular cuff ports.”

I met Laura Bates when we presented together along with others who had used Shakespeare behind bars and I was knocked out by her work.  While I worked for ten years at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts and directed eight plays with women in the regular population (See Shakespeare Behind-Bars: The Power of Drama in a Womens Prison), Laura worked exclusively with men in solitary.

The challenge is explored in a book just released, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard.  She focuses on one particular prisoner and hence the title.  Larry felt Shakespeare saved his life.

In her book, Bates says that Larry read all of Shakespeare’s works and she feels that some of his comments are as insightful as any she has received in or out of prison, teaching the Bard.  He eventually made it into the general population of the prison. She is currently compiling his comments into The Prisoner’s Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Here is a snippet from the book, reprinted below with the author’s permission on amazon.com

Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”

What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less! And then to be able to flip open the two-thousand-page Complete Works of Shakespeare and find the quote immediately: “When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound”!

…“Act 5, scene 4,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”

Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met three years prior, in 2003, when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit, and we spent three years   working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.

“Everything okay in here?” he asks.

“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.

He shakes his head and walks on.

“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.

A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not   crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare. And maybe, just maybe, it is because he’s reading Shakespeare that he is not crazy, or dangerous.

Many of the men Bates encountered committed violent offenses behind bars, and while solitary is extremely controversial as a way to help prisoners change their behavior, they are sent there as punishment, often for years. But no matter what you think of containing these people in cages, no prisoner is only their crime. Bates’s work points up the idea that to label people as un-redeemable belies our humanity. These men are not “the worst of the worst” as often referred to in article after article.  They are men who are also human beings indebted to the chance to turn their pain, loss, rage and deprivation into words.  Bravo.

Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books, professor at Middlesex Community College and a prison activist. She worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays; she published Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at www.bostonmagazine.com and blogs at “Justice with Jean” at www.jeantrounstine.com.  Follow her @justicewithjean.

Permalink: http://jeantrounstine.com/?p=966

3 thoughts on “Saving Lives with Shakespeare

    1. Indeed. And Shakespeare may be more apropos than many would think. His plays were filled with romance, betrayal, murder, lust and tragedy. The language is musical, soothing and quite beautiful. As I edited this post, I began to realize that Shakespeare may be just the ticket for inmates locked away in the horror of solitary.

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