Shakespeare in Prison

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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 is a program facilitated at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It empowers inmates through theatre exercises and Shakespearean text to think creatively, re-examine decisions they’ve made, gain insight into themselves and others, and develop crucial life skills to be used both in and out of prison.

There is an idea that only “great actors” can do Shakespeare “right,” and that is absolutely false. Anyone can perform Shakespeare, and everyone has the right to create art as part of being a self-aware and individual human being.

Inmates who volunteer for the Shakespeare in Prison program form a tight ensemble and work for nine months with the option of performing a fully staged work by Shakespeare at the culmination of the session. After profoundly successful seasons exploring Scenes and Monologues, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello, the ensemble has chosen to explore Richard III with the goal of performing it in June 2017.

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 that program, Curt Tofteland, has been advising the project's founder and lead facilitator, Frannie Shepherd-Bates. Participants in Shakespeare Behind Bars have had only a 5.1% recidivism rate, as contrasted with the national rate of 67%, and Shakespeare in Prison hopes to continue that trend with its own program.

While it is too soon for to boast data like our more established counterparts, participants have been very vocal about the positive effect their work in the program has had, as have prison staff. Though the program is still young, participants who have completed Shakespeare in Prison and have been paroled or discharged (27 women) currently have a recidivism rate of 7.4% (2 have re-offended).

This season, SIP facilitators are conducting a case study of the program 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 somewhat 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 women 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 women 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. The women 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.

With the development of these skills comes increased confidence in all areas of the participants' lives. Several of the women who completed the program and moved on did so with eagerness to try new things while incarcerated and with greater confidence in what they will be able to accomplish when they are released into the community.

The development of all these skills helps the participants constructively reintegrate back into society, making them less likely to re-offend.

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 piloting its first youth workshop in proud partnership with Youth Arts Alliance! This pilot of The Shakespeare Workshop is a 12-week model, taking into account the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system, which differ from adults, and the facility in which the 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.

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

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