The men sit in a semicircle, facing a chalkboard and two visitors. One is the instructor, a gray-bearded man with glasses. The other is a guest speaker: a tall woman in her mid-50s with keen blue eyes and flaxen hair streaked silver. This is her first time in Pendleton. But she knows one of the inmates, kept in another part of the prison, very well.
“Remember,” she tells the men in the room, speaking cheerfully with a Midwestern cadence, “make what you read today relevant.”
One of the youngest men, wearing a green knit cap issued by the prison, stands up. “Me and John have been practicing,” says Chris Lewis, smiling proudly. “We’ll be Coriolanus and Menenius.”
He and John Gray, a short, goateed young man, face each other. The other four move to the side and open their books.
“O sir,” says Gray, reciting the adviser Menenius’s lines from memory, “you are not right: Have you not known the worthiest man have done’t?”
“What must I say?” says Lewis, playing the proud general Coriolanus. “‘I pray, sir’—plague upon’t! I cannot bring my tongue to such a pace:—’Look, sir, my wounds!’ I got them in my country’s service, when some certain of my brethren roar’d and ran from the noise of our own drums.'”
“O me, the gods!” says Gray. “You must speak of that: You must desire them to think upon you.”
“Think upon me!” says Lewis. “Hang ’em! I would they would forget me, like the virtues which our divines lose by ’em.”
“You’ll mar all,” says Gray. “I leave you. Pray you, speak to ’em, I pray you, in wholesome manner.”
Gray steps to the side. Three of the other men move in, playing Roman plebeians. They read their parts. Lewis continues from memory.
When Act 2, Scene 3 ends they stop and talk about what they’ve just read, picking apart each line for meaning and context. Then they run through the scene several more times before sitting down and discussing Coriolanus‘s titular character.
“He’s like General Patton,” says Tim Woods, burly and bearded with a shaved head. “He was great on the battlefield, but said inflammatory things in public.”
“I agree,” says Michael Shannon, his long brown hair pulled straight back. “He’s totally out of place—a military man forced into the political arena. He’s acting out of conscience, but he’s struggling with his ego.”
“His contempt for the citizenry—he reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men,” says Woods.
“Yeah?” says Zach Truax, a thin young man with a fresh buzz cut. “I picture the dude who played the English king in Braveheart.”
They go on, respectfully discussing the character and his motivations, tying it to their own lives, to pop culture and the modern world. The middle-aged woman sitting in their midst listens closely—and smiles.
Laura Bates teaches Shakespeare to maximum-security prisoners. For most of the past 15 years she has focused on those in “Supermax”—the violent, erratic, “worst of the worst” stowed in long-term solitary confinement. She is the first and only person ever to do so.
“They’re the ones who need education the most,” says Bates, 56, an English professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. “And they’re the ones with the least opportunity. Shakespeare has the power to educate convicted killers and help them examine the choices they made that landed them here—and how to avoid making those choices again.
Reading and performing plays—the crux of most Shakespeare-in-prison programs found in 11 other states and half a dozen other countries—isn’t enough for Bates. Her work, uniquely, centers on critical thinking, interpretive analysis, and creative rewriting.
In one project, men from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility collaborated with women from the Rockville Correctional Center (where Bates also volunteered) to rewrite The Taming of the Shrew in plain language, turning the play into a commentary on domestic violence. Other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, which were performed by prisoners in Wabash’s general population, spoke out against violence, revenge, and gangs.
“It’s the only way to bring Shakespeare back to their lives,” she says, “to make it matter in a way that’s personal.”
Despite the gravity of her work, Bates is good-natured and quick to laugh. She speaks briskly, conversationally—more like an attentive neighbor than an ivory tower academic. That may have something to do with her salt-of-the-earth upbringing. Her parents were World War II refugees from Latvia who took factory jobs after they settled in Chicago. Bates and her sister grew up on the city’s west side, in the notorious Austin neighborhood.
“It was a ghetto,” she says with characteristic frankness. “A lot of crime and criminals. Having grown up with that population, I’m still more comfortable in a prison than in a university setting. The first time I volunteered as a literacy tutor in Cook County Jail, I wasn’t scared—or surprised to see some old friends from the neighborhood behind those bars.”
That was in 1984, when Bates believed “that first-time offenders would be the most rehabilitate-able. In fact, I remember arguing vehemently with a friend of my husband’s who was doing theater work with inmates at Joliet. I told him that the hard-core prisoners he was working with were beyond rehabilitation.”
She soon learned, however, that people in jail awaiting trial can be unstable, unsettled by drug withdrawal or by the adjustment to incarceration.
“Ironically,” she says, “it’s the lifers—the ones who have been in prison for 20 years and are resigned to it—who are the safest population to work with. And the ones we really need to reach. So it only took me 25 years to admit I was wrong in that initial argument!”
For a dozen years after her first tutoring session at Cook County Jail, as she completed her doctorate under noted Shakespeare scholar David Bevington at the University of Chicago, Bates taught English courses at the medium-security Putnamville Correctional Facility. In the late 1990s, when she began as an adjunct professor at Indiana State, she volunteered at Wabash—one of two prisons in Indiana with a Security Housing Unit (SHU), aka solitary confinement.
The practice of keeping prisoners in solitary has become a hot-button issue in recent years. Conditions vary from prison to prison, but it’s essentially the same everywhere: An inmate spends 23 hours a day locked in a small windowless cell—on a concrete floor, behind a steel door—for weeks, months, even years at a time.
Since the early 1970s solitary confinement has been an increasingly popular sanction in state and federal prisons. But as public opinion shifts and budget cuts mount, states have begun rethinking its merits and viability. Is it an expensive but necessary means of segregating the most dangerous prisoners? Or an inhumane form of psychological, and perhaps unconstitutional, torture?
At Wabash, Bates knew she’d need something different to reach the SHU residents. So she turned to the Bard.
“I figured if I did the ‘criminal tragedies’—Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet—they’d see that the content isn’t all lovey-dovey, but things they can really relate to: complicated characters, moral decisions, action-packed adventure. And I thought, ‘If I can just get just one guy to buy in, he’ll spread the word.'”
That one guy was Larry Newton. A fifth-grade dropout from Muncie, Newton had been in and out of juvenile facilities since he was ten years old. At 17 he was convicted of kidnapping and murder, along with two peers, and given a life sentence with no chance of parole. In prison he was violent again and again. He tried to escape several times. When Bates arrived at Wabash, he’d been in solitary confinement for a decade.
“I had never met an inmate who scared me—until Newton,” Bates writes in her book Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard, a chronicle of her work with Newton and others in the Wabash SHU. “I had never rejected one—until Newton.”
But something made her think again. While screening prospective participants for her nascent “Shakespeare in Shackles” program, Newton’s sophisticated analysis of a soliloquy in Richard II—”It seems to me that he has gone from king to prisoner,” Newton wrote, “and in his thoughts goes back and forth, but seems to conclude with saying that until you have been at peace, or content, with nothing … you cannot be pleased with anything”—persuaded her to take a chance.
For the next ten years Bates guided Newton and 200 other SHU inmates through careful considerations of Shakespeare’s plays. Each week guards would lead as many as eight prisoners, chained and leashed, from their windowless rooms into adjacent holding cells. As they knelt on the concrete floor, legs still shackled, they spoke through cuff ports (also called food-pass doors).
Bates sat on a plastic chair in the narrow hallway between their cells. Wearing jeans and a sweater, with a workbook on her lap and a pen in her hand, she guided them patiently through the thicket of Elizabethan English, encouraging them to articulate their ideas and refusing to let them settle for pat responses. Again and again, she reminded them to bring the discussion back to their own experiences.
Those close readings and thoughtful analyses led to appreciable changes. Prior to the program, says Bates, the 20 inmates who spent the most time with Shakespeare had had more than 600 write-ups for violent behavior. During and after the program, they totaled just two—for cell-phone possession.
In the SHU group Newton’s critiques were the most trenchant—”Some of his interpretations are being cited in scholarly papers and at conferences,” Bates says proudly—and his change the most profound. He was eventually released from solitary confinement at Wabash, and went on to write a manual to help other inmates read Shakespeare.
“He’s written workbooks for 13 separate plays,” says Bates, “and a synopsis page for 37 plays. I’ve used them with dozens of prisoners—and some of my college classes. Now I just need to find a publisher for Larry’s work.”
Newton is currently housed in Pendleton. Though he and Bates have kept in touch by mail, they have not seen each other for three years, and Bates was unable to secure a meeting with him when she visited the Coriolanus group on April 11. But she was hoping to reunite with her gold-star student when she was to return later in the month.
Rex Hammond doesn’t look like a career criminal. With his neat sandy hair, thoughtful expression, and blue oxford tucked into black slacks, the 49-year-old looks like a faculty member enjoying his lunch at an Indiana State University eatery.
But from the age of 12, when he stole a neighbor’s coin collection, until August 2009, when he was released from prison after serving time for armed robbery and taking a deputy hostage, he was a recidivist through and through.
“Classic case of differential association theory,” he says. “I was influenced by my peers and older brother—crime as a learned behavior. It happens in Shakespeare, where good people can become bad, like in Macbeth. And they can get played, like in Othello. But that’s life. And sometimes circumstances make a life-course criminal, from an early age well into adulthood.”
Hammond knows all this because he’s studying criminology at the graduate level. He’s been working on a master’s degree since completing his bachelor’s at ISU in 2012. He is also a graduate assistant for three professors.
Hammond says his turnaround began with education in prison—especially Shakespeare.
“When I met Dr. Bates in Wabash, I was 34 years old,” he says, “and I’d read ten books in my life, if I’m lucky. I took my first Shakespeare course with her, and I went, ‘Wow!’ It started opening my mind, getting me to think outside myself. The world became more than the 15 or 20 miles around me. And I saw right away how relevant it was. Our modes of technology have changed, but the human mind—wants, needs, desires—is the same as it was in Shakespeare’s time.”
Including our darker impulses. “Some criminologists ask, ‘Why do people commit crimes?’ says Hammond. “But Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, turned that around and asked, ‘Why don’t people commit crimes?’ You see that a lot in Shakespeare’s plays. We all have within us the ability to become serial killers.”
Sitting in on Bates’s English 460 class at ISU, in a third-row chair by the window, Hammond offers a dose of stark reality in counterpoint to the other students, who are all in their early 20s and look like traditional undergrads. Bates walks the class—18 juniors and seniors, half of them paying attention, all bound for grad school or a teaching job—through six points in Macbeth, using one of Newton’s workbooks to frame the discussion.
“In Act 2, Scene 1,” she says, “Macbeth sees a floating dagger. What is he really seeing?”
“Well, he’s definitely not seeing an actual dagger,” says a student named Emily. “Maybe he’s seeing … opportunity?
“I think that’s right,” says Hammond. “When I went on a two-week armed-robbery spree, every night I’d see myself committing a robbery I hadn’t yet. The more it consumes you, the more it overtakes your mind.”
“OK,” says Bates. “What about accomplices? Let’s talk about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife.”
“Like Bonnie and Clyde,” says Sam, a male student, “this is a couple that’s extremely loyal to each other. They’ve got an interdependent sociopathic relationship.”
“She becomes a direct participant when she drugs the guards,” says a female student named Alex. “When she gets her hands dirty.”
“Actually,” says Hammond, “just talking about it makes her an accomplice in the eyes of the law. I can tell you that in prison, if you talk about doing a crime you don’t want anyone there. One person knowing is too many.”
Bates ends the class by showing a grainy five-minute video of her Wabash SHU group considering some of the same questions.
“Let’s look at influence,” says Newton on screen, leading the discussion through the cuff port of his cell door. “Do you think I could hypothetically convince you to conduct yourself in the way you’re most opposed to?”
“If you could push me to do it, then there was something in me already,” says inmate Leon Benson, another star SHU student who wrote a foreword to Newton’s workbooks. “We have to look at Macbeth as a human being. He might not be aware of influence. When I was on the streets, I was hustling. But who was I hustling for? I was being influenced unconsciously.”
“When I first read the play, I saw huge mitigating circumstances,” says Newton. “Blame the witches. Blame Lady Macbeth. But now I want to remove the influence argument and leave Macbeth to stand on his own for his behavior. As I’ve tried to do myself. I’m still finding reasons for why I behaved the way I did.”
Hammond watches the video and smiles. So does Bates.
The United States is the biggest jailer in the world—1,570,400 inmates in state and federal prisons as of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Should they be educated? And who should pay for it? These are fraught questions.
Data shows that higher education leads to less recidivism. Yet many legislators and voters balk at criminals receiving free college classes. In 1994 the U.S. Congress passed legislation to deny federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Over the past two decades many states have followed suit, phasing out prison education programs.
“I agree that lawbreakers shouldn’t get free education when law-abiding people have to pay for it,” says Bates. “But the old ‘it’s cheaper to educate than incarcerate’ line is true: Men and women in prison need education. We just need to figure out a way they can pay for it themselves, by working for it.”
In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly and budget-pressed Department of Corrections abolished college degree-granting programs. That included ISU’s distance-learning program, which had reached inmates like Hammond.
“That’s why it’s so important that my work is completely voluntary,” says Bates. “The fact that it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime is one reason I don’t get shut down when other programming does. Now I want to get a new generation out there on a volunteer basis. Because really, at this point, that’s all we can do.”
Her grassroots seeding is starting to sprout disciples, like Micki Morahn.
Morahn, 59, works with Bates each week at the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute. She uses her master’s degree in history to help prisoners contextualize what they’re reading, like explaining the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century.
“This is the place where you can make a difference,” she says. “Here you really see the brain starting to engage. You’re introducing critical thinking to people who have never had that opportunity.”
Keaton Bernier, a 23-year-old undergrad at ISU, and Joshua Akens, a 34-year-old graduate assistant, also help Bates at USP Terre Haute.
“Prisoners are people, and people make mistakes,” says Akens. “That’s how I see them, even though I admit I’m nervous around them. Hopefully, Shakespeare will help them start to see there are different perspectives out there, and that’ll create tolerance of other people and other cultures.”
Scott Bonham, chaplain at USP Terre Haute, says it’s already happening.
“Dr. Bates’s program has drawn inmates of different ages, races, and religions into a group—a big step toward civility and citizenship. Shakespeare’s plays still speak to deep and true ideas, thoughts, and emotions. The more inmates grapple with these profound ideas, the more they grasp human complexity and community.
“[Her program] expands interests, improves attitudes, and tempers negative behavior. It may only be a small group of inmates she and her volunteers work with at any one time, but the ripple effect is very powerful in prison. A dozen positive men can change the tenor of an entire unit—and ultimately an institution.”
Alan Kemp is one of those positive men. Tall and tanned with buzz-cut hair and a calm mien, he’s hoping to become the first inmate to start his own Shakespeare program. On a bright spring day Bates and her husband, Allan—a white-haired playwright and retired professor who is a constant companion to his wife—drop off a workbook for him at USP Terre Haute. As Bates wishes him luck, Kemp clutches the book to his chest, smiles, and walks back inside.
Professors Play Their Part
Bates is also inspiring her peers. Cynthia Rutz, an English professor at Valparaiso University, has asked her advice on how to set up a Bard-behind-bars program. So has Jonathan Shailor, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. And the Maine State Prison, after consulting with Bates last year, might begin its own Shakespeare program this summer.
Jack Heller, an English professor at Huntington University, founded the Pendleton program last fall after reading Bates’s book. He’d also previously spent six years volunteering in Kentucky prisons. Shakespeare, he says, is good for what ails any inmate.
“With Laura’s group, many of whom will never get out, it helps them see their own humanity,” he says, “and the humanity of people they’ve associated with, including their victims. For the men who eventually do get out, we can see that Shakespeare [greatly reduces] the recidivism rate. It’s time for people in the social sciences to start studying this and why it works.”
For Bates, it comes back to something Newton told her.
“He said he’d been through all sorts of programs in prison, and nothing worked. But Shakespeare did. Why? Because all those other programs start with the premise that you’re broken and need to be fixed—need to become another person. Shakespeare starts with the premise that you’re not broken if you can handle the language and grapple with the issues. Once you do, you can start to get past whatever personas you’ve been hiding behind and examine who you really are.
“And isn’t that,” she says with a smile, “what we all want to know?”
Laura Bates and Larry Newton were reunited this April 23—Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. They spoke through a glass panel in the Pendleton SHU, where Newton is confined.
Newton was enthusiastic about the new Shakespeare program at Pendleton, modeled on the one Bates created in Supermax ten years ago. He said he’s come to believe that human nature is essentially good—and that Shakespeare has the power to change anyone, just as it did him.
“Some of the guys signed up because of what I told them about Shakespeare, how he saved my life,” he said. “And that made them want to do it too. That’s so cool, man!”
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“You’re an innovator, Larry,” said Bates. “And you are saving lives.”