Saving lives: Professor’s Shakespeare program works with ‘worst of the worst’

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
September 7, 2010

Seven years ago Laura Bates walked into Wabash Valley Correctional Facility's segregated housing unit and began knocking on inmate's metal cell doors.

"Hi. Would you like to read Shakespeare?" she asked.

Those knocks by Indiana State University's associate professor of English led to a one-of-a-kind program.

"We are the only Shakespeare program in the segregated unit in solitary confinement anywhere in the world," Bates said. "Never before attempted. Seven years later, never duplicated either."

Though Bates laughs as she makes that comment, the work takes place in an area that couldn't be more serious. Segregated housing is a prison's prison for what those in corrections call "the worst of the worst" prisoners, those who have committed violent offenses while in prison.

"These are men who are maximum security offenders who often times haven't had any real challenges in their lives that have really taxed them to not only think, but be creative in their thinking," said Jack Hendrix, assistant superintendent at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

Combining study of Shakespeare with intellectual challenges like rewriting Shakespeare's plays allows the prisoners to be creative, he said.

"Consequently, it makes Shakespeare a little more interesting to them, not to mention that it does allow them to really put forth a lot of other talents that otherwise would go unchecked," he said.

Bates meets with the prisoners individually, but also has group sessions in solitary confinement.

"Yeah, I know it sounds like an oxymoron," she said. "We have group work in segregation."

Two officers escort each man into an individual cell in a separate unit inside segregated housing. Bates sits in a small hallway between eight individual cells with the imprisoned men sitting behind metal doors peering, talking and listening through open rectangular cuff ports.

"It's a very bizarre, very bizarre way to have a Shakespeare class," Bates said.

Danjo Graziano was one of the prisoners who peered at Dr. Bates through the cuff port to discuss Shakespeare.

"Six years in a box," said Danjo Graziano, a Wabash Valley Correctional Facility prisoner of his time in segregation. "You live in your bathroom for six years. You can lose your mind after awhile."

Graziano credits Bates and Shakespeare with changing his life.

"When Shakespeare was introduced to me, I was at that point where I was on the fence about things. I didn't know which way I wanted to go," he said. "Dr. Bates saved my life because I was on the border of losing my mind."

Bates said another inmate told her that Shakespeare saved his life as he had contemplated suicide.

"Shakespeare can save an individual life. Shakespeare can stop a convicted killer from killing again," she said. "I've seen that happen more than once. That is our explicit focus for working with the worst of the worst, the most violent prisoners in the state of Indiana. We look at Shakespeare's, what I call, criminal tragedies. We look at the various reasons that these characters commit murder and then we examine and really question these characters' motives at the same time bringing it back to the prisoners own motives."

That focus on changing lives came after one prisoner approached Bates about recreating his experience with Shakespeare in which by analyzing the characters' motives he reexamined his own motives.

"It was always with an eye toward finding alternatives to criminal thinking patterns, in other words really behavior modification, making yourself a better person," Bates said. "That's really been the guiding principle ever since of the program."

In studying "Macbeth," prisoners focused on why a person shouldn't kill others. With "Hamlet," they changed the ending so that Hamlet does not kill and called the version, "To Revenge or Not to Revenge." They adapted "Romeo and Juliet" to focus on teenage violence. Most recently, they studied "Taming of the Shrew" and in their adaptation, Kate became a victim of domestic abuse.

"We've chosen to look at the plight of women in a man's world," the narrator informed a select audience at the recent performance.

In looking at that plight, Bates involved women incarcerated at Rockville Correctional Facility who had suffered domestic abuse. The women wrote about their experiences for the men to incorporate in the play.

"It was confidential among all the prisoners," Bates said. "They didn't know who else was working on this project."

But it was a project that touched both the men and women involved. At the beginning of the project, Bates read to the women a collaborative statement from the men, including, "Sister, whatever you suffered you have to know it wasn't your fault, you don't deserve that. Can you help us men come to an understanding of what this is about, please?"

In response, Bates said, "They cried."

Then when the women's stories were read to the men, Bates said "they were shaken, they were visibly shaken by that."

Caitlin Stuckey, a 2010 ISU alumna and ISU English adjunct, helped with writing and editing the script along with Kate's speech at the end of the play when she tells what the years of abuse have done to her.

"They really bring a lot to the table in terms of their interpretations of it," she said of the prisoners work on the script. "Without that literature background, their interpretations are on just their own experiences in life."

Prisoners in segregated housing rewrite the plays, but due to their circumstances are unable to perform the plays.

"That opened then the idea that we could find other prisoners who could move, that weren't shackled, that weren't in little boxes and they volunteered then to perform the works written by the segregated authors," Bates said.

Those productions, for family and friends, are filmed and shown throughout the facility.

"That had a nice side benefit that the prison, which houses, 2,200 maximum security prisoners, were being introduced to Shakespeare through this very much prisoner mediated kind of medium," Bates said.

This year, the cast of "Taming of the Shrew" also performed twice for inmates held at Wabash Valley.

Jon Omstead, who portrayed Kate in one production, said he hoped that men would rethink their previous behavior toward women. He also hoped it would help the women who had been abused.

"I hope that it was maybe cathartic for the women who wrote at Rockville," he said. "I think that's important to be able to get their voice out there and to maybe unload some of the emotions some of the pent-up frustrations they've felt over the years."

Omstead has acted in different productions, including "Romeo and Juliet," "Henry V" and "Taming of the Shrew."

"I've also been in segregation and I know there's very little back there that's intellectually stimulating and you just sit and you stew and it's not a very mentally healthy place to be," he said. "I just figured that anything I could do that would just maybe bring a smile to some guy's life back there and have him have a better day, then I just decided it was a good thing."

But since then his involvement in the Shakespeare program morphed into something else for him. Omstead said sometimes the Shakespeare lessons have become group therapy sessions and that through those lessons he and the other prisoners have grown as men.

"It's finding your humanity instead of acting out and just living in a cage and being told what to do all the time. You revert back to an animalistic prison, like primitive type of behavior," he said. "These programs here keep you grounded."

That finding of humanity and remaining grounded are important to Omstead, although he said he can understand people's thinking prisoners should be left in their cells without education or programs.

"But when you do that to a guy, it's unhealthy," he said. "If he already has problems going into prison, they're only going to get worse if you do that. And then he's eventually going to come back out and he's going to come back out a very bad person."

The program also positively affects the prisoners locked in segregated housing.

"To date, we've worked with over 200 prisoners and the only way that I can really document the success that I've mentioned is I can look at their conduct history in prison because that is what brings them into the seg unit prison, not violence on the street," Bates said. "We've not had any sort of violent incident to date by anyone who's in the program."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/990774644_bkCfk-D.jpg
Laura Bates, ISU associate professor of English, teaches Shakespeare in the segregated housing unit of Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Bates' project at the prison has attracted international attention. Courtesy Photo/ WVCF

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/990774630_oMhiF-D.jpg
Prisoners discuss their opinions on Shakespeare during a class in Wabash Valley Correctional Facility's segregated housing unit. Courtesy photo/WVCF

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/991992354_FLbLL-D.jpg
Inmates at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility perform an adaptation of "Taming of the Shrew," which was written by inmates in the segregated housing unit. Courtesy photo/WVCF

Contact: Laura Bates, Indiana State University, associate professor of English, at 812-237-3141 or Laura.Bates@indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu