Voices

Can Shakespeare help reform prisoners?

By Laura Bates

07 July 2015 - 04:13

Laura Bates, Professor of English at Indiana State University, has worked in maximum security prisons across the US setting up Shakespeare programmes. She explains how the world's most famous playwright can help bring about prisoner reform.

'How do you get prisoners to read Shakespeare?' 'Why Shakespeare?' These are the two most common questions I am asked about my work. I tell people it's not difficult to get prisoners to read Shakespeare, they want to read Shakespeare; they recognise him as the most respected and revered icon of world literature.

Shakespeare can help modify prisoners' behaviour in a way that counselling cannot. Counsellors typically begin with the premise: 'you are "broken", I know how to "fix" you'. Naturally, this kind of approach meets with resistance.

Inviting a prisoner to read Shakespeare begins with the opposite premise: 'I believe you are capable of reading the most challenging of literature.' Flattered, and often surprised, by such an invitation, many prisoners relish, and rise to, the challenge. And when they succeed, they feel a sense of accomplishment that can't be got from reading Hemingway or Dickens.

This is the first and only Shakespeare programme created for a maximum security (supermax) prison

supermax is the long-term solitary confinement unit within a prison. It houses the most dangerous prisoners in the US. Prisoners in this unit spend close to 24 hours a day in windowless concrete cells – not for days or weeks, but months and often years at a time. Any movement out of their cells is a monumental undertaking.

The prisoners who joined my Shakespeare programme each week were escorted from their cells and placed in separate cells where the classes took place. In between each class, I asked them to write down their responses to the play we were reading, scene by scene. When they arrived, I collected their writings through the opened slot in the steel doors.

I sat in the little hallway between two rows of cells as the prisoners spoke to one another, sharing their insights and debating interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Their discussions took place through these little slots. They could only see the eyes of the prisoners across from them, and they could not see the prisoners next to them at all.

Reading Shakespeare can save lives

I spent ten years reading Shakespeare’s plays with prisoners in solitary confinement, working with hundreds of prisoners in all. One of them, Larry Newton, spent ten years living in solitary confinement. The effect of the programme on Larry has been profound. 'Shakespeare saved my life', he says. 'I was really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day for years and years. I'm confident that I would've done something drastic and ended up on death row. Or I would've one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.'

Reading the plays teaches prisoners skills such as communication and comprehension, as well as analysis, critical thinking, and looking at issues and characters from multiple perspectives. For Larry, studying Shakespeare led to deep realisations about his crimes; he looked at them anew:

'Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays', he says. 'I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn't want to do just by attacking his ego. I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realisation that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own. And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced, because it meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be.'

Education is pivotal in helping released prisoners reintegrate into society

The Shakespeare programme I created in the segregation unit in Indiana has expanded into other prisons in the state and across the US. I had the opportunity to design the curriculum for the four-year bachelor’s degree programme that was offered by Indiana State University through its Correction Education Programme. As a professor in the programme, I included a bit of Shakespeare in every course I taught, even in Introduction to American Literature.

Recently, I received an email from a successfully reintegrated offender. Dennis was a student in the college-credit classes I taught for Indiana State University, when the state of Indiana still had a correctional education programme. The email had the title ‘Shakespeare saved MY life, too’.

Dennis wrote: 'Ever since I was released from prison, shortly after graduation with a bachelor’s degree, I've been addicted to education. I've often attributed this second addiction to my prison education, as it taught me the value of education to improving my ability to process information and make better decisions, all the while, working to improve my own lot in life while helping those I can. Naturally, the Bard has been at the forefront of my interests. Whether confronting male-female relationships with a shrew or the internal moral and ethical struggle of a king, Shakespeare has given me insight to the human condition.'

Dennis has now earned a Master of Liberal Studies degree, focusing on Shakespeare and political science. He is currently finishing his second year of classwork for his PhD.

Shakespeare programmes in prison create a lot of controversy

Some academics see these programmes as ‘high culture’ forced on vulnerable people for the benefit of the prison administration. Others see it as entertainment only, an ‘escape’ from serving hard time – an impression the media compounds when it shows convicts having fun as they rehearse a play and bow to the applause they receive. But far more important than the fun they are having are the lessons they are learning and the benefits this has for wider society.

Larry Newton remains in prison, but he continues to be a positive influence on others who will be released one day. Statistics are not encouraging for released prisoners: most will return to prison. While I can’t offer comprehensive data on the recidivism rate for offenders who participated in my Shakespeare programme, I can report that among those who took part in the programme and have since been released from prison, not one has returned.

It may be harder to see the therapeutic effects of delving into Shakespeare’s characters – analysing why Macbeth commits murder, for example. But it can help prisoners come to terms with their own motives before deciding not to kill again. It is impossible to ‘see’ the victims that have been saved as a result, but they are there.

Laura Bates is the author of Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard.

The British Council is planning a year-long global programme celebrating Shakespeare’s works in 2016. Find out more about the Shakespeare Lives programme of activities.

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