“Shakespeare has the power to educate convicted killers and help them examine the choices they made that landed them here – and how to avoid making those choices again.”
No one would be more surprised than William Shakespeare to learn his words could mean so much to a group of inmates 400 years after his very own death. Shakespeare Saved My Life by Indiana State University professor Dr. Laura Bates is a fascinating and unique memoir about a group of supermax inmates (“the baddest of the bad”). I read the book on a whim, but I share it with a purpose.
The whim came about when I clicked on the link in my daily Goodreads deals email two weeks ago. While I enjoy non-fiction, particularly history books, I’m not normally a reader of memoirs. But something about the summary intrigued me. Certainly Shakespeare in the title initially caught my eye, not that I am anywhere close to being an expert and haven’t even read all of his works. I suppose what really attracted me was the subject matter. My knowledge (if you can call it that) of prison life was limited to what I gleaned from movies and television shows, not including documentary programs like MSNBC’s Lockup. I’ve never visited a prison nor have I been friends with someone who has spent time in prison (to the best of my knowledge). However, as a writer, I’m always interested in singular perspectives.
I downloaded a copy of the book from my local library where it sat on my digital bookshelf for a week until I finally cracked it open. As they say about all good books, I could not put it down. The chapters are short. The writing is solid and straightforward. The subjects—the SHU (Special Housing Unit) inmates and Dr. Bates—are all equally fascinating. Fascinating is the word I’ll keep using to describe this reading experience because it is quite simply the perfect word.
Before reading this book, I thought of all supermax inmates as “hardened criminals” who either started out disadvantaged and/or had turned to a life of crime out of greed or some other unsavory motivation. Sure, I’m oversimplifying things. I know people commit crimes for all sorts of reasons—murder especially. Murder. That word Alfred Hitchcock weaved into his film noir, even glamorized it. In real life, there’s absolutely nothing glamorous about a teenager killing someone because of peer pressure or because a victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dr. Bates had been a long-time volunteer educator at Chicago’s Cook County jail before she created the Shakespeare program for the inmates of Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Terre Haute, Indiana. It became the first program of its kind for a group of life-sentence inmates. She specifically targeted the inmates in solitary confinement because they were deemed “beyond rehabilitation.” Dr. Bates’ program proved all her critics wrong. Of course, Dr. Bates openly admits not all inmates expressed interest in the program—some were less polite about it than others—but the inmates who did sign up for the program were considered just “as bad” as the rest.
In one remarkable case, Larry Newton seemed to have been written off at an early age by both the judicial system and the Department of Corrections. Granted, the DOC had ample reasons due to Larry’s repeated escape attempts and continued commission of violent acts while in prison. That is until the Shakespeare program changed Larry’s life. It saved his life—both literally and figuratively.
Larry is very open in the book about the choices he made which led to his life sentence without the possibility of parole. It’s incredible to think of a seventeen-year-old being sentenced not only to life in prison but to life in solitary confinement. What’s most astonishing is the way Larry has been able to break out of his personal prison through the works of Shakespeare.
Larry’s revelations about his life choices are what fascinate me the most. He doesn’t present himself as that “hardened criminal” I expected. Rather, I still see and hear that seventeen-year-old kid in him who only now has found the person he wants to be and assuredly wishes he’d become before committing the worst of his crimes. With a huge gap in his education, Larry pushes himself to learn and teach others the works of Shakespeare. He also teaches Latin on the side. Under severe and demoralizing conditions, he pushes himself to write. He is living a life where he has every reason to be resentful and hopeless, but he feels the exact opposite. The successful rehabilitation of Larry and his fellow Shakespeare inmates has led to the development of similar programs in other states.
With his fellow “lifers” in the Shakespeare program, Larry tries to impress upon troubled youths—both in and out of prison—to think about their decisions. The kids are urged to ask themselves why they’re making their specific choices. Owning up to their own responsibilities, the inmate advocates hope the kids following in their footsteps will change their way of thinking before it’s too late.
One of Dr. Bates’ most shocking discoveries was learning how young the Shakespeare inmates had begun their lives of crime. With ages ranging from seven to twelve, these “delinquents” (as I’m sure they were called) started out stealing soda, vandalizing cars, or dealing drugs. At the age of fourteen, one of the program inmates quickly graduated to murder during the course of a home invasion—both the boy and the victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This discovery in Dr. Bates’ studies led her to begin work on a second novel targeting criminal behavior in children. The book is devised to help teachers identify those at risk so they can be introduced to something like the Shakespeare program.
As I commented earlier, there is nothing glamorous about murder, nor does it deserve forgiveness. It’s one of the worst crimes a person can commit. In most cases, a loved one is subjected to a violent ending. I don’t wish to disregard the feelings or rights of the victims or their families by recommending this book. Instead, I want to focus on the rehabilitation aspects of those in prison and those on the streets who are desperately in need of help though they may not be able to admit it.
As Dr. Bates points out in her book, Shakespeare can not only save the lives of current and potential inmates, it can also save the lives of future victims. According to the experts, any passion from an arts and humanities program can be used to stimulate the rehabilitation process. The point is to spark young men and young women to think in ways they were never taught or encouraged. I can’t begin to imagine what kinds of choices these at-risk kids are forced to make, but I hold onto hope some will be brave enough to take a different path than the one laid down in front of them.
Finally, we come to the purpose of sharing my experience of reading Shakespeare Saved My Life with you. After completing the book earlier in the week, I jumped online to look up Dr. Laura Bates. As the book had originally been published in 2013, I was curious to learn what she and Larry had been up to over the last four years. Lo and behold! I found she was giving a presentation as part of a speaker’s series at a theater near my home. A few days later, I found myself a member of her audience.
After the presentation Dr. Bates headed to the lobby to sign books. Because I had downloaded my copy from the library, I had nothing for her to sign. As per author events, she was selling paperback copies, but I did not have my wallet to make a purchase. Regardless, I stood in line to meet her and to let her know how impressed I was with her work. (She is very down-to-earth and gracious, not surprising considering the time she donates to inmate education.) As I shuffled along, I called my nephew in the hopes he could bring me some cash before the event ended. Overhearing my conversation, the lovely woman behind me turned around, handed me $15, and bid me pay it forward.
So, that is what I’m doing by giving away three (3) digital copies of Shakespeare Saved My Life by Dr. Laura Bates. I wish I could make it an international giveaway but haven’t figured out how to do it without involving addresses and shipping charges. Apologies to those outside the United States.
Click on the book cover to the left to buy a copy. Click here to win a copy! Good luck to all who enter. If you are not one of the lucky winners, I encourage you to check the book out on your own.
You can read more about Dr. Bates’ Shakespeare project in many online articles and interviews, including this National Geographic piece: Shakespeare in Shackles: Laura Bates
Lastly, Shakespeare Saved My Life is/was being considered for feature film development. I have no information on whether it’s been greenlit yet, but I’m already picturing Meryl Streep as Dr. Bates and Michael Chiklis as Larry, although Chiklis is twelve years older.