Teaching the Bard, Behind Bars: Shakespeare at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction

Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Steve Pfarrer
Published: 3/8/2018 2:21:35 PM

He’s one of Shakespeare’s most tragic characters: a soldier and lord who, egged on by his wife, a seeming prophecy from three witches, and his own lust for power, murders the king of Scotland and arranges the killing of other people who might prevent him from taking the throne.

Yet Macbeth’s trail of blood comes back to haunt him, and in one of his last scenes, shortly before he dies in battle against the rightful rulers of Scotland, he reflects on his terrible choices and the ephemeral nature of existence, the sense that life is “but a walking shadow … It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”

He’s a character that some of the students in a unique class on Shakespeare, taught at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, say they can identify with.

“I feel the same way Macbeth felt,” Wolf, an “inside student” in the class, said during a recent discussion of the play. As he touched briefly on a tragedy — the death of his young son — that had torn his life apart, Wolf said he could see himself in Macbeth, in the way “one thing in your life can be the seed of your destruction.”

But Wolf and several other Hampshire jail inmates who are part of the class are also finding positive life lessons in reading the Bard, and in sharing their thoughts with Five College “outside students,” primarily from Amherst College, who take the class with them.

The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, which began between the jail and Amherst College in 2005 (it’s part of a national program based at Temple University in Philadelphia), is designed not just to give incarcerated people a chance to earn college credit, but also to let college students have a look inside a prison and learn alongside inmates.

For Ilan Stavans, professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst who’s leading the Shakespeare class, teaching at the Hampshire House of Correction “has been a truly humbling experience,” he says. “It makes you rethink your role as a teacher and as a reader of Shakespeare, of the value of Shakespeare. It gives you the idea that what [teachers] do matters, that we can be more inclusive.”

“I’m not coming here with mercy because you’re in the jail,” Stavans adds. “I have high expectations for everyone — I expect inside students to write extraordinary papers, and I want them to get the sense that they are as worthy readers of Shakespeare as anyone else.”

In that egalitarian spirit, class members are identified simply as “inside” and “outside” students — not inmates and college students — and only first names are used. The class is also divided roughly equally between the two groups (about 21 students in all, plus two people not taking the course for credit), and everyone sits together in a large meeting room. On Wednesdays, Stavans leads the class, and on Mondays, three Amherst students serving as teaching assistants (TAs) give additional help to the inside students with reading, writing assignments and other aspects of the class.

For Sophie, an Amherst senior who’s one of the TAs, taking part in the class “is the highlight of my week.” She finds the inside students — all men — not only very committed to the work “but very honest and straightforward about where they are in their lives … there’s not the kind of pretending that you can have [at college] that your life is perfect. It’s very real.”

For inside student Daquan, who’s taken a number of Inside Out programs at Hampshire, including a previous one taught by Stavans, tackling Shakespeare is no easy task. But he likes the challenge, he says, and the opportunity to work alongside the college students: “It’s the chance to learn something new, to figure out how to get to that next level.”

‘I feel like I can see where these characters are coming from’

Last month, on a day when the temperature weirdly surged into the mid 70s, the class gathered at four tables formed into a large square in the jail’s meeting room to discuss the last two acts from “Macbeth” and cover a few other items, including an upcoming paper on the play.

Aside from reading “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” and writing papers based on the three plays, students are expected to memorize and recite aloud either sections of the plays or selected Shakespearean sonnets. They will act out, in small groups, various scenes from the three plays; all of those scenes will be staged at the end of the semester in a show for the whole jail.

Students also watch a number of Shakespeare-related films, like the 1957 epic “Throne of Blood,” a retelling of “Macbeth” that’s set in feudal Japan, as part of the course.

Two outside students, Emma and Victoria, got things rolling in the class with short recitations — Emma the famous passage from “Romeo and Juliet” in which Juliet exclaims “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and Victoria a short passage from “Macbeth.” After both had gotten a round of applause, Stavans posed a general question to the class: What, he asked, was “Macbeth” about?

“It’s about power — what you’ll do to get it,” said Isaias, an inside student.

Joe, also an inside student, suggested it was about manipulating other people to get something “so you don’t get your own hands dirty.”

“Pride,” ventured Reece, an outside student.

“Putting too much on your plate,” said Kevin, an inside student.

Daquan said the play might be summarized as a tale of consuming ambition, a “burning desire that makes you willing to burn every bridge in the world to get what you want.”

“Good suggestions,” said Stavans, who then brought up next week’s assignment: a paper inspired by “Macbeth.”

“I want your best writing!” he said, swatting the tabletop for emphasis. “And I want to hear how you might approach the subject. Who wants to start?”

Ion, an inside student, suggested he might do it as a short story “that’s kind of based on how I got here. It could be a story as told by an idiot,” a reference to Macbeth’s last line in the play.

Ervin, also an inside student, wondered if the assignment could be from this perspective: “Have you ever come to a point in life when you thought it would end?”

Stavans explains that writing assignments for the students, especially for the inside ones, are very open-ended: “It could be a short story, a poem, a memoir, something that is very personal.” It’s his sense that the inmates might be able to offer a unique perspective on the drama and tragedy of Shakespeare because they’ve taken some hard knocks in life and made decisions they regret.

One of his former inside students wrote a personal piece so powerful, he notes, that he submitted it to “The Common,” the literary journal published at Amherst College, where it’s due to appear in an upcoming issue.

Some of his current inside students touched on stories from their pasts and how, like Wolf, they could relate to Shakespeare’s characters. Daquan explained how he’d changed when one of his brothers “died in my arms. I was already a bad kid, but after that, I began feeling pain more. I’d say my empathy became bigger.”

Shakespeare appeals to him now, Daquan added, “because he delivers such emotion in his books … I feel like I can see where these characters are coming from.”

The class is designed to bring inside and outside students together in many ways; for instance, the seven small groups that are learning the parts of the Shakespeare plays to be performed are made up
of students from inside and outside the jail. Stavans notes certain protocols must also be observed: Neither inside nor outside students are supposed to share personal information. That’s in part to protect the privacy of those involved.

Yet a certain closeness among students is an important part of any class, he says, and he believes hearing bits and pieces of the inside students’ stories has given the outside ones a better understanding “of a very different view of life.”

Sophie, the Amherst College TA, agrees. A political science and international relations major from Germany, she previously did an internship with a New York nonprofit organization, the Urban Justice Center, that worked with prisoners in part to try and prepare them to re-enter society. That, more than Shakespeare’s work itself, got her interested in taking part in the class (she’d also taken a previous class with Stavans and enjoyed it).

When she and the other TAs meet with the inside students at the jail on Mondays, she said, “We read with them, we help them with their papers and edit them, but mostly we just sit and talk. They’re really eager to share … I think we’ve learned a lot about what life looks like from their perspective.”

Sophie says she’s good at drawing a line between open conversation and more personal matters. But she says the experience of talking to incarcerated people, both at the Hampshire jail and the ones she worked with during her New York internship, has made her realize “how much I related to the prisoners. When you hear some of the stories of how people ended up there, you can’t help but think ‘This could happen to me, too.’ ” 

Christina, another Amherst TA who’s majoring in psychology, says she also has enjoyed working with the inside students; she’s interested in doing work of that nature in the future, she said. In going to the jail, she added, she hopes she and the other college students “are able to show [inmates], in some way, how life might be like outside of prison.”

And Ellen Reich, an Amherst Regional High School English teacher who’s auditing the course, says it’s inspired her to bring Shakespeare into her classroom in a new, accessible way. “I am amazed at the honesty and openness with which all of the students are voicing their thoughts, asking questions, and making connections to the text from their own life experience,” she said in an email.

High hopes

Preparing inmates at the Hampshire jail for life back on the outside is a huge part of the facility’s mission, says Yvonne Gittelson, the jail’s education coordinator. On any given day, she notes, roughly half of the inmates who have received sentences are involved in a wide range of programs: high school equivalency classes, vocational training, anger and stress management and many others. The Amherst College classes, which are funded entirely by the college, are a welcome bonus, Gittelson said.

The inmates in the current class “are very committed to it, and we expect that commitment,” she said. “They know it’s a privilege,” she added, to earn college credit under these circumstances, given the cost to attend Amherst and the college’s status as an elite liberal arts school.

After receiving word from Stavans last year that he was interested in leading the Shakespeare class, Gittelson let inmates know of the class to gauge interest; 15 inmates said they’d like to take it, and from that number the nine current inside students in the class were selected, based on their sentences, their behavior records and their general progress toward post-jail life, said Gittelson.

“We think these classes are a wonderful opportunity, and we’re very grateful to the college,” she said. She noted that two University of Massachusetts Amherst professors led a course in the jail last fall on social justice journalism — the university’s first class in the jail — and said “I like nothing better than to see inmates improve their lives through education.”

Stavans, a prolific author who also heads a publishing company, Restless Books, in Brooklyn, New York, said he has been keeping a diary during the classes he’s taught at the Hampshire jail with the idea of eventually turning it into a book. He believes the experience of leading a class for students of very different backgrounds — and how it has freshened his own approach to teaching — is a strong subject.

Teaching here “is a challenge,” he says. “You have one group of students who in some cases may not have finished high school, whose teachers in the past never told them they could succeed. Then you have these very bright Amherst and Five College students. How do you bring them together in a way that works for everyone?”

His initial interest in teaching in the jail was first sparked by hearing an episode on “This American Life,” the National Public Radio program, about inmates in a high-security prison in Missouri who staged a production of the final act of “Hamlet.” Later, he learned of the Inside Out program and talked to some of his Amherst colleagues who had taught in the Hampshire jail and suggested he take part in it. In 2015, he taught his first course there, on Latino literature, and in 2016 his first Shakespeare class.

Why Shakespeare, though? Why not some other writer — maybe Ernest Hemingway — who’s more accessible?

“Good question,” Stavans says with a laugh. But he has a ready answer. Not only is Shakespeare considered the pinnacle of English literature, but his writing “is all about life. He has a lot to teach us about living. We can all learn from him.”