Shakespeare in Prison

Detroit Public Theatre's
Signature Community Program

Video credit:
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 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, inmates 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 with life sentences are equally challenged by the limitations 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.”


Women's Ensemble Blog

Men's Ensemble Blog

Shakespeare Reclaimed


The S.I.P. Team

How do we know it works?

Many factors contribute to whether a person, once released from prison, will someday return. After 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. 37 women have completed at least one full season of SIP and gone home; only two have re-offended, making their rate of recidivism just 5.41%. When the 10 male alumni paroled thus far (none of whom have re-offended) are factored in, the rate drops to 4.26%. 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.

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 both 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 to submit for publication in the fall of 2018.

Shakespeare Reclaimed, our new post-release program 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.”

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

Video credit:
Chuk Nowak

The Women's Ensemble

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After profoundly successful seasons exploring Scenes and Monologues, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Richard III, and Macbeth, the ensemble at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility has chosen to explore Twelfth Night, performing in June 2019. The program has been developed with constant feedback from ensemble members, some of whom have been in the group for nearly six years.

Click here to follow the weekly blog from WHV.

The Men's Ensemble


Our program at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson has been developed primarily by its inmate ensemble members, with support from SIP staff. Thus far, we've completed a pilot season featuring one two-week intensive exploring Macbeth and two 12-week workshops exploring Othello and The Tempest — all incredibly successful. This program launched its first full 40-week season this summer, exploring King Lear.

Click here to follow the weekly blog from Parnall.

Your support ensures that this program continues to grow and expand. Please consider a tax deductible donation!

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Youth Programming

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 uses creativity as a tool to alter potential for those in juvenile detention and residential treatment facilities by providing safe-spaces for self-expression, collaboration, and celebration, profoundly transforming the trajectory of individuals and their impact on society.