Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard
While Laura Bates was fighting to take her Shakespeare program into solitary confinement, one of its most notorious inmates was staging a violent uprising in the very same prison.
Early in her academic career Bates declared maximum security prisoners “beyond rehabilitation.” To prove her point, she began volunteering in Chicago’s Cook County Jail literacy program. Not only did Bates’ opinion change, but ten years later she would take her Shakespeare program to the toughest offenders of them all. Bates shares this journey in the memoir, Shakespeare Saved My Life.
Armed with her newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and photocopied handouts from Richard the Second, Bates finally broke into “supermax,” the long-term solitary confinement unit of Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana. To screen prospective prisoners for intent and motivation, Bates first handed out a survey worksheet with a soliloquy by the imprisoned King Richard II, which included the line:
“I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world; and for the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” (Richard the Second; Act 5, Scene 5)
Bates asked the prisoners to read the passage and then respond to the excerpt. Most prisoners returned brief remarks, but one prisoner’s response revealed college-level close critical reading through his keen personal insight and explication of the literary passage. That prisoner was Larry Newton, the mastermind of the uprising in supermax that nearly blocked Bates’ opportunity to enter the unit with her program. A convicted killer with a sentence of life without parole, he had stabbed a guard during the uprising, placing him in the extreme disciplinary section of supermax.
While Shakespeare Saved My Life is a mosaic of prisoner stories paralleled by Bates’ own life, the greater picture is of Newton. A brilliant man whose abusive upbringing in a Muncie, Ind. ghetto pushed him through a revolving door of runaways and juvenile detention, the last grade he successfully finished was the fifth, and by the ninth, he had dropped out. At the age of 17 he and three friends kidnapped a college student, robbed him, then shot him dead. The brutality of the crime saw Newton tried as an adult, with rights for appeal waved. Wasting away in disciplinary lockup, Newton was angry and suicidal. Then he read King Richard II’s agonized speech and found a hero in Shakespeare.
As the prison Shakespeare program grows, so does Newton. Bates includes passages from Newton’s writing, revealing scholarly understanding as well as street-level sagacity. Bates makes it clear that at no time did she move from professor to advocate, yet her guidance is clear as Newton progresses from the prison of self and into the liberty of knowledge. Shakespeare Saved My Life is a captivating look at the transforming power of story.
Bates has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Comparative Literature, with a focus on Shakespeare studies. She is a professor of English at Indiana State University, where she has taught courses on Shakespeare for the past 15 years to students on campus and in prison. For more than 25 years she has worked in prisons as a volunteer and as a professor. She created the world’s first Shakespeare program in supermax—the long-term solitary confinement unit. Her work has been featured in local and national media, including two segments on MSNBC-TV’s Lock Up. She has been happily married for nearly thirty years to Allan Bates, a retired professor and playwright.
Follow Laura Bates on Twitter: @shakeinshackles.