IdeaFestival: Shakespeare Behind Bars

While Baratunde Thurston’s presentation on Friday may have garnered the most enthusiastic and energetic audience response, no presentation earned a more emotional response at IdeaFestival than Saturday’s Shakespeare Behind Bars panel moderated by founder Curt Tofteland.  

Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) began in the mid-1990s at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. Now in its 17th season, it’s the oldest of its kind in the United States. SBB is a non-profit organization that produces Shakespeare plays with incarcerated adults and juveniles. Inmates vet who’s accepted into the program; they self-cast the the plays and run the tech.

According to the program’s website, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program “was founded on the beliefs that all human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth. Participation in the program can effectively change our world for the better by influencing one person at a time, awakening him or her to the power and the passion of the goodness that lives within all of us.”

The first person on the panel to speak was Steve Berry, the warden who first allowed SBB to try their program in Luckett. Tofteland asked Berry, “I want to know why you let the old hippy into the prison.”

“I let the old hippy in because I was desperate,” says Berry.

Luckett was built with 500 prisoners in mind, one to a cell. By the time Tofteland approached Berry with the SBB program, the population had soared to 1100. The prison had fitted each cell with two bunk beds and had turned a dayroom into a barracks housing 100 men.

Berry says the prison’s biggest problem is idle time. All of the academic and work programs offered at Luckett were full and had waiting lists. The warden was desperate to find programs to keep the inmates busy. 

“We had a lot of people who didn’t have insight or discipline,” says Berry. “The program helped them with that and helped a significant number of people from coming back to the prison.” 

LaDonna Thompson, commissioner of the Kentucky Corrections Department, also spoke on the panel. She’s a big fan of the SBB and makes it a point to attend plays and rehearsal. 

“I’ve been a little bit of a nerd for most of my life,” says Thompson. The program immediately piqued her interest. 

“Some of the inmates—and some of the staff, in fact—might never have seen Shakespeare without these shows,” adds Thompson.

Larry Chandler, retired chairman of the Kentucky State Parole Board, suggested early in the presentation that the SBB program ought to be judged by its products—the alumni of the program, those men and youths who have been released and are working to reintegrate into society. The panel featured two such men, Larry Lucas and Richard Hughes.

Lucas spent 27 years in Luckett and was released in 2010. He found it difficult to find work with his record as a convicted felon, so he borrowed money from his mother and sister, bought a truck and a lawn mower and started LSL Enterprises, a lawncare and landscaping company. He has two employees now and is a full time student at Jefferson Community and Technical College.

When he first saw SBB practicing in the yard, Lucas says he thought it was a little corny. But shortly thereafter, his sister came to visit and sparked an epiphany. All his sister said to him was, “Mama’s not getting any younger.”

Lucas had been sentenced to life without parole. He says, “The people who said that I couldn’t change that, that I couldn’t change myself, fueled my desire to change everything.” Later he amended that statement. “I didn’t even really have to change myself. I just had to change back to who I was as a kid.”

Lucas’s inmate friends coerced him to join SBB. He was accepted and worked with SBB for ten years until his release in 2010. 

“The more I started doing right, the more good things happened,” says Lucas.

Richard Hughes joined Shakespeare Behind Bars for the t-shirt. Luckett inmates wear standard khaki uniforms, but occasionally, participants in SBB are allowed to wear their program tshirt. That tiny opportunity to show a bit of individuality in a sea of standardization was enough of a draw for him.

Hughes was incarcerated for 12 years and worked with SBB for seven. Where Lucas delivered an eloquent and confident speech, Hughes’ story was served with a depth of passion and emotion that was palpable

“Shakespeare Behind Bars saved my life, in the sense that I didn’t know what I was about,” says Hughes.

He joined the program for the t-shirt—and the occasional pizza parties—but it didn’t take long for him to start earning choice roles and using the support of the program to look more deeply within himself.

His epiphany came while playing Sebastian in “The Tempest.” 

“I didn’t have to kill that man,” he says.

Hughes explained that SBB helps inmates achieve “true” rehabilitation. “When true rehabilitation takes place, you don’t have to have a monster back on the streets.”

The numbers support Hughes’s assertion to a staggering degree. National recidivism rates for inmates hover around the 50 percent mark. But for Shakespeare Behind Bars alumni, that number is less than 6 percent. The program, says Hughes, truly changes people.

 

“I used to look in the mirror and see a monster,” says Hughes. “Now I look and see a man.”

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