Shakespeare in Prison
Detroit Public Theatre's
Signature Community Program
Shakespeare in Prison empowers incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to reconnect with their humanity and that of others; to reflect on their past, present, and future; and to gain the confidence, self-esteem, and crucial skills they need to heal and positively impact their communities.
There are many perceived barriers to working with Shakespeare. People may feel that they're not smart or educated enough to touch it; that it’s only for trained actors; that it's a foreign language they can't possibly understand; that there's no way they can relate to these four hundred year old plays. On top of that, incarcerated people have been labeled by their crimes and prison ID numbers. Most have survived trauma and addiction. They have been disempowered; made to feel worthless, stupid; shells of who they once were or could have been. Most are disconnected from their own humanity and that of others.
The SIP experience profoundly alters this. We see people in their totality—not as defined by their worst mistakes. In our ensembles, people find comradeship and a safe space; their ideas are valued; they improve communication; they develop as leaders and teammates; and they accomplish something truly radical. In SIP, incarcerated people gain new perspectives on themselves and others, increase empathy and confidence, and learn to see their places on the broad spectrum of humanity, all through the lens of Shakespeare.
When our least visible members of society are given opportunities to heal, grow, and gain empowerment, it benefits all of us. Those going home will no longer be invisible upon their release, at which time they will face many challenges; those serving life sentences are equally challenged by the realities of prison culture. Knowing that they have successfully worked as part of a team to put together a play by Shakespeare helps them take on these challenges; knowing they are not alone on the broad spectrum of humanity gives them hope. As one woman said, “It makes me feel like I can go out there and do anything. I don’t need to depend on drugs. I don’t need to depend on anything... If you can do this, there’s nothing in this world that you can’t do.”
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How do we know it works?
Many factors contribute to whether a person, once released from prison, will someday return. After seven years, 91% of SIP’s alumni have not returned to prison—so we can safely say that the experiences had and skills learned in SIP bolster alumni’s efforts to move forward, never to go back. That number, though, does not measure SIP’s impact for the six women serving life sentences who’ve participated; nor does it account for the success that former and current ensemble members are having on the inside.
Because recidivism is thus limited in measuring the program’s outcomes, SIP’s director and staff gained approval to conduct a case study of the 2016-17 season at the women’s prison that measures a different sort of outcome: narrative identity development (essentially, the way in which we see and tell our life stories) for ensemble members over the duration of one season. The study, which will be available on our website very soon, found that a season in Shakespeare in Prison results in a shift from disempowerment to empowerment for nearly all participants—and in transformational change for many.
Our post-release program for alumni, developed in collaboration with ensemble members old and new, allows us to see the long term impact of the program. It enables us to sustain the healthy relationships we create on the inside, provide emotional support to our alumni, and engage them in personal and professional development opportunities. As one woman recently said, “I wasn’t going to let you in, but now we have the outside program, I feel like I can commit. ’Cause I’m not gonna have much, or hardly anybody, when I go home, and I’m gonna need that support.”