Breaking Into Prison: An Interview with Prison Educator Laura Bates

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Laura Bates has taught literature and writing in correctional institutions for a quarter century and is currently associate professor of English at Indiana State University. Her chronicle of her prison work, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, was published this year by Sourcebooks.

Interviewer Cheryl L. Reed is a 2012 graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program, a former managing editor of TriQuarterly, and currently teaches creative writing in an Indiana state prison in Westville, Indiana.


TriQuarterly: What was the impetus of going to prison to teach? What started your interest?

Laura Bates: I started teaching in Chicago's Cook County Jail in 1983.  A friend of my husband’s was teaching in prison, and I told him he was wasting his time with the maximum security prisoners because “they are beyond rehabilitation.” Of course, 25 years later I’m at a super max myself and realizing that no one is ever beyond rehabilitation. I would never have thought of working in prisons on my own. But when I met this man, I thought it sounded interesting and worthwhile.

TQ: So how did you get into the Cook County Jail? How did that happen?

LB: Yes, how does one break into jail? There was a literacy program there. The PACE Institute (Programmed Activities for Correctional Education). Initially I started working as a literacy volunteer and after I had done that just for a few short weeks, I asked for a meeting with the director, Ben Greer, and that’s when I threw out a proposal: What do you think about me working with a group? At that point it wasn’t Shakespeare. It was much closer to creative writing with a focus on drama, which was my background.

The first project I had them do was a short, one act play of their own. And we used prison as our topic. I encouraged them to make it comical so as not to be too heavy. And we just had fun. It was a farcical one act play. And the play was a success. It was performed in the prison auditorium before a packed house full of inmates who loved the show. This was around 1983. 

By the time I was doing my doctoral work at the University of Chicago, it was ten years later. That’s when I read about the concept of Shakespeare’s universality, and I started to think about bringing Shakespeare into prison. I was still in Chicago and still in the Cook County Jail and I brought Romeo and Juliet in to work on with a group of prisoners.  

What’s so wonderful about working in the prison environment is that you learn as much from your students as you teach them. In that first experience, I was learning so much about Romeo and Juliet from the prisoners’ perspective, from their personal responses. They could relate to the gang mentality of the feuding houses of Montague and Capulet. Their own experience confirmed lines such as Benvolio’s:

“I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:
The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

There's always more trouble on the streets on hot nights, they told me, and I started to see how accurately Shakespeare had portrayed the criminal environment.

It was obviously good for them and it was good for me. That’s how the whole Shakespeare connection started.

TQ: By that point you had been working in the Cook County Jail for 10 years?

LB: It was on and off. There was a time when I wasn’t working there, but the prisoners kept the program alive.  It became a prisoner-run program, which was great. I would sit in the audience and enjoy the performance that the prisoners put on.

At some point I moved down to Indiana where I was teaching at Indiana State University (Terre Haute) on campus.  I was very attracted to that university because it already had a correctional education program.

TQ: What’s the difference between teaching as a volunteer and as a paid college professor teaching college-credit courses in prison?

LB: I think the volunteer experience has the advantage that your students are there because they want to be there. They are not just motivated by the end goal of the degree or the time cut (getting time knocked off their sentences). And you are there because you feel like you are doing something good. You are changing their lives and hopefully that gives back to society, because, eventually, most inmates will get out of prison.

Larry is one of a very few prisoners that I know who had a life sentence with no chance of parole. In fact, some of my students in SHU (Secured Housing Unit) were released directly onto the street: from segregation to the street....what an adjustment! I recall asking one prisoner who was being released the next day whether the adjustment would be difficult. “No,” he replied. “I've done it before.”

The teacher is there because he or she wants to be and the prisoners know that, so they have extra respect and appreciation. And you are going to get the best people in the program if they are there because they want to be there. So I think volunteer programs have a lot of advantages. Of course, it doesn’t pay the bills, but hopefully you have a day job.

When I first looked at the maximum security unit (Wabash Valley Correctional Facility), and specifically its SHU, also known as the Super Max, they only had the GED program. I seriously considered going back to school to get a high school teaching license so that I could take on that job. That would have been a full-time job, though.

TQ: How did you get permission to teach in the various prisons where you’ve taught? Was every program already established or did you to create the program?

LB: I’ve had both experiences. One reason I wrote the book was to encourage others to take on these kinds of projects.

Starting a program in the Super Max is almost impossible. So if anyone wants to take on a great challenge, it would be to break into Super Max.  What helped me was that I was already an established teacher there and had been representing Indiana State University and had been going down to the Wabash Valley Correctional Institution from 1997 to 2003. I knew the administration and the superintendent. He suggested I branch out into a program that could be offered in the SHU. He said I could do group work here, which sounded crazy because how do you do group work in solitary confinement?

He let me use the new-prisoner intake area for my class.  The students were escorted from their cells into this special area where they were placed into individual cells with me in the narrow hallway between them.

He opened all of the doors, he invited me to start the program and even provided the classroom space, but in other prisons I had to be the one making that initial contact.

TQ: What are some of the obstacles to teaching in prison?

LB: There are just so many things that you have to be aware of.  There are so many materials you cannot bring in. First of all, how to do you get the books? Do you pay for them yourself? From the prison’s perspective, they have to be permitted materials. Hard cover books couldn’t be brought in to the SHU. The subject matter needs to be reviewed by the administration.  In a writing class, things like paper and pens, even those materials need to be approved.

For those who don’t have any connections with a prison, emailing the PIO (public information officer) or even the superintendent is a good starting point. Go to the website and look for the director of programing. I would start with an email describing who you are and what you want to do. Maybe briefly describe some of your credentials, either as a teacher or as a volunteer, that would appeal to them. Here’s another tip: always emphasize what the program would offer the prisoners. Re-entry is a very big issue for most prisons. They want to make sure that when the prisoners get out that they have the skills to make them successful. So you could stress that they’ll need communication skills, which reading and writing classes will enhance. They’ll need to learn to work in teams, collaborate, meet deadlines, complete projects—all things that any class can teach.

TQ: One of the obstacles for other writers and teachers has been the distance most prisons are to urban centers, where many writers live. How far did you have to drive?

LB: At Wabash Valley it was a two-hour round trip.  It helps if you live close. From the administration’s viewpoint, they know you are handy, that you are reliable, and that you are not going to get tired of the long drive.

TQ: So many people get their MFAs and want to teach but don’t have experience teaching. Is prison a good place to start?

LB: Yes. I do believe the best volunteer work is when you have something to gain as well.  I don’t think it works that well when it is 100 percent altruistic and you are there completely to give to the other person. There has to be something you are getting from this, as well.

I certainly felt so much more comfortable going into my first teaching experience on the college campus because I had had several years by that point working in prison. When I first went to Indiana State, I was just looking for an adjunct position, I hadn’t finished my PhD yet, and I remember the chairperson said to me as he looked over my CV: “I guess if you can handle prisoners, you can handle our freshmen.”

Prison can provide not only a good teaching experience, but it really is a lot more challenging in a lot of ways.  A good chairperson would recognize that, too, that you have been teaching in an environment that is even more challenging than what you are going to encounter on campus.

TQ: What kinds of special skills do you think you need to have to teach in prison?

LB: Number One: Be open. Be relaxed and confident, just be yourself. You need to be open to the fact that your students are going to be non-traditional, that you will have students who are older than you. That’s something that takes some adjustment .You might have an 18 year old and a 50 year old in the same class. You’re more than likely to have inner city people along with small town folks. You have to accept that these people are criminals. You have to set that aside.  I made it a policy to never ask anyone what he had done to be sentenced to prison, but that sometimes came out in conversation especially when they felt comfortable.

When I started working with the maximum security prisoners I just assumed that they were all killers, because most of them were.  But the only time it felt relevant was when it came up in the texts we were studying, Macbeth especially, and we were examining the decisions that a killer makes before doing the deed. I kind of worried it might make people too uncomfortable, but that never happened. There were people who would examine their own crimes in relation to Macbeth.

TQ: What caused you to write the book?

LB: My main motivation was to interest other people into volunteering to work with prisoners, hopefully, making the world a better place. Unlike Larry (the main character in her book who was sentenced as a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole), almost every prisoner I’ve encountered is going to get out of prison some day. 

Even if Larry never does, he still has tremendous influence among the other prisoners, his family and other people. So encouraging others, that was my main motivation. The interpretations of Shakespeare I thought would be interesting to those who are interested in Shakespeare. But I always like to say that this is a book about Shakespeare even for those who don’t like Shakespeare. None of the prisoners started out as Shakespeare fanatics. Most of the prisoners didn’t know what Shakespeare was when they joined the program. They might have heard about Shakespeare and may even have been intimidated by him.

TQ: You make references in the book to the English Department resenting your time spent at the prison. What was that about?

LB: There was a mixed response among my colleagues. There are many who were and are, to this day, very supportive. Then there are others that cautioned me when I went into the Super Max; they thought it was too dangerous. It was the department chairperson who hired me who later said “I don’t think you should be going there anymore. That’s enough.” I think there was a little bit of that fatherly sort of worrying because after I’d been teaching several years at the University we started offering classes through the distance programming. I would be on TV, and the prisoners would be on TV and it was all done while I was on the college campus, which had its pros and cons. The best thing was that I was able to teach at various prisons all at the same time, with maybe 50 to 60 students in a Shakespeare class for college credit. And when I was doing that, my chairperson didn’t object because it was part of my regular teaching load, for one thing, and I wasn’t going into the prisons. So there was no longer the risk factor.

TQ: There’s so much emphasis on community service as part of garnering tenure, that you would think your work in prison would help you when you went up for tenure?

LB: It didn’t then. But it would now. You’re absolutely right. There’s been a shift in academia, but it was too late for me. The time I was coming up for tenure in the 1990s, the community service aspect wasn’t counted as much. The president of the university thought I was doing a wonderful thing, but at the committee level and department level, it wasn’t recognized as it is now.  For our university, we just redid all our policies for promotion and tenure. So it would help someone applying for tenure now.

TQ: What are the top four joys of teaching in prison?

LB: 1.You learn as much as you teach. I learned about Shakespeare, prison, people, teaching, life. 

2. You feel you are making a difference. These are people who have a much greater need than your typical college students.  The prisoner who volunteers for these programs or seeks out education wants to be a better person.  You are having an impact on their lives, and remember, they are going to get out one day. (Only 10 percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons are serving life sentences according to the Sentencing Project, a prison research and advocacy group.)

3. Fun.  A lot of the guys have a great sense of humor. We’d find a lot to laugh about sometimes. Oh, and did I mention: there’s NO GRADING. At least, not in a voluntary program.

4. Freedom. It seems strange to say, but you have more freedom to teach what you want in prison (as compared to teaching on a college campus).  As a newcomer to teaching on campus or as an adjunct instructor teaching freshmen classes, you’re very much under the scrutiny of a supervisor, and you’re working with a standardized syllabus and textbooks that have already been chosen. In prison, as long as you are not bringing in contraband—like instructions on how to make a better bomb—you are given a lot of freedom on what to teach. I wasn’t able to teach Shakespeare on campus; I was teaching freshman composition, but when I got to prison I could say let’s do King Lear or Hamlet. That kind of freedom is wonderful. It’s a great place to try out different kinds of teaching techniques or writing assignments. The fact that the prisoners are older, and not shy, they are a great source for ideas about your approach.

TQ: Frustrations with teaching in prison?

LB: The long drive was the big negative for me. (Going down to Wabash.) The first time I taught in correctional setting was at the Cook County Jail, and even though inmates can be held in a jail for up to two years, it’s still a very dynamic setting. At the jail, every single week I lost one from the previous week’s group and got one new guy I had never met before. That was a great challenge. There are other things in the general populations in prisons, like lock-down.

Ideally, this is where the relationship with the administration is helpful.  Because if they know you are driving far, they should call you and tell you. Or you could take it upon yourself to call before you drive down.

When I was working in general population, I had guys from several different houses, the biggest frustration there was that some would be on lock down while others weren’t. It was very frustrating when you are trying to produce a play and your Romeo is on lockdown but the rest of the cast is there.

I did have a lock-down situation once in the maximum security prison’s SHU. I got there and they told me I couldn’t have class because they were on lock-down. I said:  “What do you mean, you’re on lock-down? The SHU is a lock-down unit!” But sometimes they do have even tighter security situations.