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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Shakespeare Saved My Life Offers a Fascinating Look at the Transformative Power of Literature in Even the Most Unlikely of Places

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Breaking into the state's most secured unit would prove to be almost as difficult as breaking out" (13).

While studying literature in college, 25-year-old Laura Bates began volunteering with a literacy program at Cook County Jail in Chicago.  Although the environment could be scary, the work was deeply satisfying.  After earning a graduate degree, Bates continued to teach English courses in Indiana prisons.  As an assistant professor at Indiana State University, she longed to do more.  Crazy as it sounded, she desired to teach Shakespeare to the most unlikely students of all—those locked in solitary confinement.  Putting her career and her reputation at risk, Bates persevered with her goal and finally received permission to try her program in 2003 at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in downstate Indiana.  The prison's most dangerous residents—the worst of the worst—were housed in its Secure Housing Unit, commonly referred to as "Supermax".  Despite the fact that the prisoners were held in concrete isolation cells with thick, bunker-like doors and communication could only be had through a slit in the door, the program became a surprising success.

Over the decade Bates spent teaching Shakespeare in Supermax, one student especially stood out.  Larry Newton, a convicted murderer, remained in solitary confinement for ten years.  Still, his life changed when he started taking Bates' class.  Newton's general intelligence and surprising insight into 400-year-old plays shocked Dr. Bates and changed the way she read the Bard.  Newton, who declared that Shakespeare saved his life, went on to write workbooks and help teach other felons and juvenile offenders about the power of Shakespeare. 

Larry Newton's story is the focus of Shakespeare Saved My Life, Laura Bates' 2013 book about her experience teaching in solitary confinement.  It's a fascinating account that offers an incredible inside look at prison life and how inmates can be changed when encouraged to use their minds to examine and relate to literature.  Bates also discusses how her own life—both as a scholar and as a person—changed because of what she learned in solitary.  Overall, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and touching.  I learned a lot from it.

Even if you're not interested in reading Shakespeare Saved My Life, you might want to check out this excellent Ted talk by Laura Bates.  It's only 15 minutes long, but it gives you a good idea of how her Shakespeare program worked in Supermax:

(Readalikes:  I've never really read anything on this topic before, so I'm not sure what to compare it to.  You?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, innuendo, and disturbing subject matter


  1. I love the sound of this one!

  2. I think many books like this one hit on something really important: the power of personal connections (teacher/student, etc) and of giving someone (a prisoner) something to look forward to, focus on, and care aboutl.


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