Professor initiates program in maximum security prison

By Michelle Embree

Jack Heller, Ph.D., and inmates participate in the first session of "Shakespeare at Pendleton." (Photo provided)

Jack Heller, Ph.D., and inmates participate in the first session of “Shakespeare at Pendleton.” (Photo provided)

“They don’t have a program. Why don’t you start one?”

This was the question posed by Laura Bates, Ph.D., author of “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard” and recent forester lecturer, in an email to Jack Heller, Ph.D. The question prompted him to initiate “Shakespeare at Pendleton.” After his first session Heller describes it as “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

“Shakespeare at Pendleton” is a program designed to allow inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility to learn, experience and connect to the works of William Shakespeare. The program kicked off Friday, Oct. 18.

“I see it work, so how could I not, in a sense, make an effort if I see that it works?” Heller said. “It seems like one of those chances. That a person has to take, the opportunity is there, and I think I would regret it if I didn’t check it out.”

The session included 12 men from the maximum-security prison who expressed an interest in the program and met the behavioral standards set by the Pendleton facility.

The facility has an average population of 1,840 prisoners, according to the Indiana Department of Correction. The maximum-security portion of the prison is located within the perimeter of a 30-foot wall. Heller described the security procedures as very thorough. He has to remove his belt, watch and shoes and empty his pockets. He is then frisked before going through two metal detectors.

“It really feels like the entirety of the world for the men in there is there,” Heller said. “I think that has an effect on the way that somebody thinks.”

Heller is choosing works by Shakespeare to use in the program because it is easy for people to find themselves represented in Shakespeare’s characters. He also thinks the program will give the members something to be proud of.

“These are men who may not have had the chance to really feel good about something they’ve done,” Heller said. “I think that if they get to a point where they’re able to work with a Shakespearean text, then they ought to take that with them and say, ‘I’m that kind of person; I’m the kind of person who can do Shakespeare.’ They should have something to be able to look back on their lives and say ‘I’ve done bad, but I’m proud of this.’”

Heller said one man wanted an interesting way to occupy time for the rest of his sentence. Another heard from a friend who had participated in a similar program that “Shakespeare had given him a reason to live, had, indeed, save his life.” Another has been writing plays himself and desires to learn from the “master of playwriting.”

Heller has done extensive work with the not-for-profit organization Shakespeare Behind Bars whose mission is “to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” Heller said he has seen great success within their programs. This experience guided him as he fashioned the program at Pendleton.

“Having seen two different Shakespeare Behind Bars programs, I recognize that they are helping the men to understand themselves, to understand how to relate to others and become, within their abilities, better [members of] the society they are in,” Heller said.

The first session at Pendleton consisted mostly of Heller and the participating inmates getting to know one another. They also discussed a portion of Portia’s speech in act IV, scene I of “Merchant of Venice.” The speech focuses on mercy.

Heller said there was “vigorous interaction” among the inmates as they discussed the text, and they were enthusiastic and interested.

“I don’t think I taught them anything about that line,” he said. “I think they taught me about it.”

In his blog, Heller identified that his favorite discussion with the men was when they discussed the lines, “it [mercy] becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown.” Not only did the men offer the typical interpretation of the line where “becomes” is interpreted as a synonym to attractive or comely, but they also offered an original interpretation, Heller wrote. One inmate suggested that mercy becomes the monarch, replacing the ruler.

“I am delighted that most of the men picked up on what I think has been the usual interpretation of these lines,” Heller wrote in his blog. “We are understanding Shakespeare.”

Heller’s blog about the first session at Pendleton can be found at under the Oct. 19 entry titled “Becoming Becoming.”

The program is scheduled to meet weekly on Friday mornings. The interests of the men participating will determine what direction the program goes. Heller said the program could focus on studying the texts, performing one of the texts, rewriting a text in modern language or a hybrid of any of these things.

“My goal is to help them find that personal improvement along the way, to become more human,” Heller said. “I also hope that they will come to ideas of what forgiveness might be, and I hope to achieve some sort of personal peace, not to excuse what they’ve done, but to be able to move forward from what they’ve done, to move on with their life.”

Leave a Reply




8 − = one