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Shakespeare: working magic in solitary confinement

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Courtesy of Indiana State University

(Read caption) "That’s the ironic thing," says Laura Bates of her work teaching Shakespeare to prisoners in solitary confinement. "These big scary prisoners were frightened of Shakespeare."

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The concept of "Shakespeare behind bars" is not new. At least since 1995 there have been programs in some US prisons encouraging inmates to study and/or perform Shakespeare. But prisoners in solitary confinement? This group – considered to be the most dangerous and hardened inmates in the entire penal system – have always been excluded from such programs.

Until Laura Bates came along. Bates, a professor at Indiana State University and author of Shakespeare Saved My Life, recently talked with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about her experiences teaching Shakespeare to inmates in a “supermax” long-term solitary confinement prison unit. Here are excerpts of their conversation.

Q: What gave you the idea of teaching Shakespeare to prisoners in solitary confinement?

Initially I got the idea to do volunteer work in prison because a friend of my husband’s was working in a maximum security prison. I sort of challenged the whole idea. I thought these maximum security prisoners were beyond rehabilitation. And so I started my own program [teaching college classes] at the local Chicago Cook County Jail with first-time offenders. I didn’t know what “supermax” was until one of my students was sent there. Flash-forward 25 years: Here I am teaching in supermax.


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