If you were a student in Laura Bates’s Shakespeare class in Wabash Valley Correctional Facility’s solitary confinement unit, here’s how you would get to class:

First you would stick your hands through the cuff port, a small slot in the steel door of your cell, so you could be handcuffed behind your back. You would be frisked or perhaps strip-searched. With your hands and feet chained, you would be escorted by two guards to an individual cell in a special area of the prison. One by one, your fellow students would be locked in their own cells along the same hallway.

Once all the doors were secured, class would begin. You would spend the class kneeling on the cement floor of your cell—ankles still cuffed—talking to Bates, PhD’98, and your classmates, only some of whom you could see.

Bates, who detailed her teaching at Indiana’s Wabash Valley in Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard (Sourcebooks, 2013), began volunteering with prisoners at Cook County Jail in 1983. She now teaches at Pendleton Correctional Facility, a federal supermax prison in Terre Haute, Indiana; she is the first and only person to teach Shakespeare there. Her pro bono work with prisoners has been featured in National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune, as well as on National Public Radio and MSNBC.

The daughter of Latvian refugees, Bates grew up in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood of Austin, which she calls “a ghetto” in her book, in the 1960s and 1970s. Appointed a full professor in the English department at Indiana State University in 2014, she says she still feels more comfortable among the prison population than with her colleagues in academia.

Bates traces her interest in teaching Shakespeare in prison to her graduate work with David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language and Literature and Comparative Literature. Bates’s research, guided by Bevington, emphasized “the universality of the text,” she says; she wanted to “test this universality by bringing it to a population that I had assumed it might not speak to.” Bates sees “a through-line” from her dissertation, “Shakespeare in Latvia, 1870–1918: The Contest for Appropriation During the Nationalist Movement,” to her prison work, which could be seen as “political appropriation of Shakespeare by prisoners.”

Over the years, Bates has primarily relied on a group of carefully chosen plays: HamletJulius CaesarOthello, and Macbeth. “I call them Shakespeare’s criminal tragedies,” she says. But while her students can relate to the subject matter, most of them “come to these texts with no background at all. Very naïve readers,” Bates says. “I find that so exciting. I love the idea of talking about Hamlet with someone who doesn’t know how it ends.”

Bates also teaches Romeo and Juliet—focusing not on the romance but on the street brawls. In one class, she asked her students what might happen after Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin. “Now he has to go and tell his girlfriend that he killed her cousin,” a 14-year-old said. “And that’s really hard to do, because I had to do it myself.” The 14-year-old killed a high-ranking rival gang leader and was placed in a supermax facility for his own protection.

Romeo and Juliet “is in strange language from a long time ago, but it seems to be about hatred, rival gangs, peer pressure,” says Bevington, who has sat in on Bates’s classes in every correctional institution where she has taught; he also wrote the introduction to her book. “Shakespeare gets at the depth of human experience in a way that is extraordinary.” 

Another perhaps unexpected choice was The Taming of the Shrew. One of Bates’s students said he was tired of doing tragedies every year and asked if they could read something more fun. Another suggested they deal with domestic abuse. “So I said, ‘Perfect. We’ll do Shakespeare’s comedy about domestic abuse.’”

Bates’s approach to Shakespeare focuses on critical thinking, interpretive analysis, creative rewriting, and occasionally—for prisoners in the regular population—performance. For a production of Taming of the Shrew, Bates worked with both male and female prisoners at Rockville Correctional Facility in Rockville, Indiana. The women rewrote Kate’s final speech from a feminist perspective. The performance concluded when Christopher Sly (from the play’s induction, often cut from theater productions) got up from the audience and punched Petruchio, yelling, “You don’t treat women like that!”

Shakespeare appeals to incarcerated people, Bates says, because even if they have never read his work, they usually know it’s considered elite. When the students who stick with the program—about one student in 100 drops out—realize they can read and understand it, “That’s huge,” she says. “These are people who’ve been told their whole lives, ‘You’re stupid, you’re incapable, you can’t do anything.’” In the ten years that Bates has worked with more than 200 supermax prisoners, her students had only two conduct infractions, neither of them violent.

“In Shakespeare you see good people make bad choices,” says Rex Hammond, who studied with Bates while serving 25 years for armed robbery. “A lot of inmates react from very poor emotional control.” Released in 2009, he will complete a master’s in criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State this year and hopes to pursue a PhD.

Hammond, who studies emotional intelligence, hypothesizes that during a yearlong Shakespeare class, inmates learn to use the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking, rather than relying on a more emotional part of the brain.

“You can’t change your reactions if you can’t change the way you think,” he says. “Shakespeare forces you to use that frontal lobe. It makes you start challenging your own decisions too.” He presented his findings in a paper about Bates’s work at this past September’s Midwestern Criminal Justice Association Conference.

As for whether she prefers to teach undergraduates or prisoners, Bates laughs. “Oh, that’s a really easy question,” she says. “If only all my students were criminals, wouldn’t that be lovely?”

Her incarcerated students have made a deliberate choice to study Shakespeare, she points out. Her undergrads, often just trying to fulfill their degree requirements, don’t always enjoy that particular freedom. “In any college classroom,” Bates says, “you can’t say that everybody’s there because they really want to be.” 




Everything is so terribly disturbing about this story of "teaching" Shakespeare to prisoners, which is made most disgustingly obvious by the photo itself: black men on their knees, shackled and handcuffed behind their backs, faces thrust to an open slot, kneeling before a genteelly seated white woman, kneeling before Shakespeare, kneeling before high European humanism, kneeling to receive it all like holy communion, like caged animals waiting to be fed at a zoo, and we, including the photographer (did the prisoners give free, meaningful, and willing consent to this photo? obviously the prison communications department did), are but all too eager spectators.

No one, least of all these men, is interested in your post-modern lit-crit Shakespearean blather in which everyone of color is a Caliban. These men are in solitary confinement, any human contact, however degrading it may appear to you, is for them a psychological burst of sunshine, a psychiatric breath of fresh air. Do not deprive them of this, the minimum of human contact allowed them.

I agree with the first comment, and to the respondent, it is not post-modern lit-crit to question whether human beings are being treated with dignity and whether Shakespeare becomes the substitute for the bible in this missionary-like scenario. It is not an either/or scenario here - teach Shakespeare or people held inhumanely in solitary confinement receive no human contact. Come on, there must be some alternative that even an anti-post-modernist could recognize. Also, there are plenty of incarcerated people who read things other than Shakespeare - I've seen Fanon and Cesaire taught in prison along with Toni Morrison and James Baldwin.

Thank you for introducing some sanity and ground for discussion here. Of course it's disturbing and disgusting, but it's not Laura Bates's fault, and it's not Shakespeare's either, unless you suppose that the culture Shakespeare was so central to defining is one in which black men inevitably wind up on their knees to white women and white culture. But Fanon, Cesaire, Morrison, and Baldwin are part of that same culture, for better and worse, which they extend by correcting and broadening and troubling it. Whether Shakespeare represents the forces that underlie the prison-industrial complex or whether he offers an alternative means of reflecting upon our humanity and its meaning and demands is a matter for discussion, not vitriolic spewing. In either case, it seems to me that all of us need to read both Shakespeare and Fanon.

I have read the previous comments attributed to teaching Shakespeare to these incarcerated men. While I appreciate someones sound, logical opinion, to attach racist views to the Shakespeare program, is undermining the entire work of Dr. Bates. The white prisoners were treated the same as the black men. It is in the SHU; therefore, the need to take precautionary measures in paramount. While in the SHU, one inmate had attempted to take a prison guard hostage. From the State's point of view, it is easy to see the needed safety measures. Once in the cell, the men were not handcuffed, nor shackled. Furthermore, prison is a world torn apart and self-segregated by race, yet all races came together to study Shakespeare - the race barrier was broken.
I spent over a quarter of a century incarcerated (over half my life and nearly all of my adult life) and had the chance to be taught by, and work with, Dr. Bates - a remarkable educator and person.
Yes, incarcerated men and women read many other great writers besides Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare has the ability to redirect the brain and make the prisoner develop critical thinking skills. In addition, it makes convicts re-examine their own choices.
I was taught Shakespeare by Dr. Bates, and while I did not continue to study Shakespeare after being taught by her, I did use her knowledge, teachings, and the critical thinking skills learned while analyzing Shakespeare to further my collegiate career and stay out of prison. After a lifetime inside, it has paid off: In August of 2015 I begin doctorate school. A lot of my thanks go to Dr. Laura Bates for her unmatched dedication in entering a maximum security prison and teaching a population that most people have deemed unteachable or unworthy.

- Rex

Read more about how Rex went from being an inmate to a PhD student:

He also has some excellent parenting advice to offer.

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world". Nelson Mandela

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