'Don't make them read Shakespeare; they're already in prison!'

The Book Beat: The Bard behind bars

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Indiana State University professor Laura Bates, Ph.D., wasn’t sure what to expect when she began a Shakespeare program for inmates in solitary confinement at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

Though Bates had taught English courses at several prison facilities, beginning in 1983, her foray into the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility marked the first time an instructor was granted access to inmates under the highest security levels. Bates’ unique opportunity and experiences are detailed in her book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard.”

While many people might consider the works of Shakespeare to be best examined in a college classroom or on a theater stage, Bates wanted to explore the possibilities for Shakespeare behind bars. 

Through stories of her students and their assessments and reactions to examples from Shakespeare’s plays, Bates demonstrates how relevant and applicable the Bard’s works are, even to inmates, and even 400 years after his death.

Furthermore, many of the students Bates encountered had limited reading levels and educational backgrounds. However, they found Shakespeare’s works to not only be accessible but, at times, they were able to make assessments that were more complex and insightful than those made by students in a traditional classroom.

Bates shares the story of her time with Larry Newton, an inmate serving a life sentence for a murder committed while he was a teenager. Bates admits that Newton was really the only inmate who initially scared her. 

Although, she had no plans to work with Newton, his preliminary responses to her prompts changed her mind. Regarding a soliloquy about the meaning of life from the last act of the history play, “Richard II,” Newton assesses that Richard’s conclusion to life means, “that until you have been at peace, or content, with nothing, you cannot be pleased with anything.”

Bates and Newton, a fifth grade dropout, continued working together, and eventually Newton helped to create an educational booklet for inmates studying Shakespeare, “The Prisoner’s Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.”

The impact of education and its ability to transform lives is a personal value Bates understands, being raised in a “west side Chicago ghetto” as the child of poor Eastern European immigrant parents. 

Bates’ desire to provide education to high-security level inmates stemmed from her natural curiosity to expand her ideals and a desire to challenge herself and view the world from a different perspective. She took risks to educate an inmate population, and as a result, the stories of those taught in her book demonstrate just how impactful education can be.

“Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard” is the 2016 Wabash Valley Community Read.

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