Shakespeare in Prison

Detroit Public Theatre's
Signature Community Program


Video by Ford Motor Company (2015)

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.

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(and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…)

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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The Women’s Ensemble

Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility
Ypsilanti, Michigan


The Men’s Ensemble

Parnall Correctional Facility
Jackson, Michigan

How do we know it works?

Many factors contribute to whether a person, once released from prison, will someday return. After more than six years, we can safely say that the experiences had and skills learned in SIP bolster alumni’s efforts to move forward, never to go back. As noted above, the national rate of recidivism is 68-77%, depending on how it’s calculated. Michigan’s recidivism rate is currently 28.1%, the lowest in the state’s history. 41 women have completed at least one full season of SIP and gone home; three have re-offended, making their rate of recidivism 7.32%. When the 12 male alumni paroled thus far (one of whom has re-offended) are factored in, the overall rate is 7.55%. This information 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.

Ensemble members and facilitators describe the process and outcomes of Shakespeare in Prison. Video by Chuk Nowak. (2017)

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 case study will provide hard data supporting the program’s outcomes—data for which we have a veritable mountain of anecdotal evidence from participants and facility staff. SIP’s staff have worked through and coded thousands of pages of data; the study is now being written with the goal of submitting it for publication in the fall of 2018.

Sonnet #35. Conceived and performed by the SIP Women’s Ensemble. Part of The Sonnet Project: US, presented by the NY Shakespeare Exchange. (2018)

Shakespeare Reclaimed

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.”