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Ford Motor Company

Detroit Public Theatre's Frannie Shepherd-Bates takes Shakespeare to a whole new level — maximum security. As the founder of Shakespeare in Prison, Frannie uses her work to help prisoners become empowered at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

What is Shakespeare In Prison?

Credit: Chris Adams/Never Say Die Media

Credit: Chris Adams/Never Say Die Media

Shakespeare in Prison empowers inmates through theatre exercises and Shakespearean text to think creatively, reflect on their pasts, gain insight into themselves and others, and develop crucial life skills to be used both in and out of prison.

There are many perceived barriers to working with Shakespeare. People may feel that they're not smart enough; that they're not educated enough; that they need to be 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.

All of that is false.

The inmates who've volunteered for Shakespeare in Prison's flagship program at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility have proved that again and again for nearly six years. Each season, they've formed a tight ensemble and worked for nine months that culminate with performances of a fully staged work by Shakespeare. After profoundly successful seasons exploring Scenes and Monologues, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Richard III, the ensemble has chosen to explore Macbeth with the goal of performing it in June 2018.

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Ensemble members and facilitators describe the process and outcomes of Shakespeare in Prison.

Video credit:
Chuk Nowak

How do we know it works?

Shakespeare in Prison is modeled after Shakespeare Behind Bars, the oldest program of its kind in North America. The founder and artistic director of SBB, Curt Tofteland, has been advising SIP's founder and lead facilitator, Frannie Shepherd-Bates, since the program began in 2012. Alumni of Shakespeare Behind Bars have had only a 5.1% recidivism rate, as contrasted with the national rate of 67%.

Shakespeare in Prison is continuing that trend. Participants have been very vocal about the positive effect their work in the program has had, as have prison staff. Nearly six years in, participants who have completed at least one season of Shakespeare in Prison and have been paroled or discharged (31 women) currently have a recidivism rate of 6.5% (2 have re-offended).

SIP facilitators conducted and are analyzing a case study of the 2016-17 season at WHV to measure identity development of the participants. This will provide more data to support the work, as recidivism is only one measure of success and is problematic for a number of reasons. We will post the results of the study here when they are ready.

Why is Shakespeare in Prison important?

Many people who are incarcerated have been "beaten down" over time, made to feel worthless, labeled as being "bad," "criminals," or worse. Within the prison system, they most often go by their last names and identification numbers. Many incarcerated people have not had opportunities in their lives to develop confidence, self esteem, and the ability to be an empowered individual.

Shakespeare in Prison helps to change all of that for its participants. Inmates gain skills such as the ability to speak confidently in front of an audience and see their reading skills improved, but, perhaps more importantly, they experience many things for the first time that most people take for granted:

  • They learn to work as a team toward a common goal;
  • They attain that goal;
  • They express their opinions, which are heard and valued;
  • They learn to trust the group enough to express deep emotion;
  • They find comradeship and sisterhood in a place where it is severely lacking;
  • They develop as leaders and learn to give constructive criticism, becoming able to argue a point without verbally attacking people with whom they disagree.
  • Working specifically with Shakespeare gives them an opportunity to take on what seems like an enormous challenge and prove to themselves and others in their lives that they are very capable of doing this seemingly impossible task.

More than 90% of incarcerated people will be released from prison. The development of all these skills helps participants constructively reintegrate back into society, making them less likely to re-offend. Several alumni, now out in the world, are pursuing goals that they developed as a direct result of their work in the ensemble. Those who remain in prison are able to utilize what they have learned not only for their own benefit, but to positively affect the community in which they live.

Your support ensures that this program continues to grow and expand. See below for 2017's exciting new programming. And please consider a tax deductible donation!

About WHV

Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, serves as the only prison in Michigan which houses females. The facility provides all reception center processing which includes fourteen housing units for general population prisoners in level I, II, and IV, Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT), Residential Treatment Program (RTP), Acute Care, Infirmary and Detention. The Shakespeare in Prison program will be an addition to the many other programs the facility offers. Adult Basic Education and General Education Development preparation classes are offered, as well as special education services and pre-release classes.. Vocational training is offered in Auto Mechanics, Building Trades, Business Education Technology, Horticulture, and Custodial Maintenance. Prisoners have access to religious services, faith-based programs, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, family preservation programming, twelve step support meetings, and general library and law library services. Prisoners are provided on-site routine medical and dental care. Pregnant prisoners receive counseling, parenting classes, and child care options.

"We're very excited about Shakespeare In Prison coming to our facility,” says Deputy Warden of programs Karri Osterhaut.  “It is a wonderful opportunity for the female prisoner population to learn about theatre and literature, and about themselves in the process."

New in 2017

The Shakespeare Workshop

Shakespeare in Prison is proud to partner with Youth Arts Alliance! to offer The Shakespeare Workshop. This 12-week model takes into account the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system, which differ from adults, and the facility in which each workshop takes place. We hope this will be a long-lasting and impactful partnership.

Youth Arts Alliance! (YAA!) provides creative arts workshops inside juvenile detention and residential treatment facilities in Southeast Michigan. YAA! believes involvement in the arts facilitates personal growth and increased connections to the community. We offer youth impacted by the juvenile justice system creative workshop opportunities to encourage, support, and celebrate their artistic talents and social development.

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Shakespeare in Prison at Parnall Correctional Facility

SIP staff facilitated a pilot program with men at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, over two weeks in July 2017. This ensemble, calling themselves "Shakespeare Unchained," read and explored Macbeth during the first week and collaborated to devise a performance piece during the second. The program received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the ensemble members, inmates attending the performance, and prison staff. Bolstered by this success, we are engaging in a 10-week session in Fall 2017, exploring Othello and continuing to facilitate an experience that, as one of the men put it, "cultivated courage and nurtured it."

Click here to follow the biweekly blog from Parnall.

For more information about Shakespeare in Prison or The Shakespeare Workshop, please fill out this form:

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