When Laura Bates entered a super max prison for the first time, she was armed with an unlikely weapon: William Shakespeare. With Shakespeare in Shackles, a program that teaches the plays of William Shakespeare to criminals in super max prison, Laura is a dealer in hope.
Since the program began 10 years ago, Shakespeare in Shackles has had immense success—it brings a sense of humanity back the most denigrated, solitary people on the planet. Reading Shakespeare, seeing the way his plays unfold, and discussing the multiplicity of interpretations gives these prisoners important perspectives and greater understanding of themselves and the world outside prison walls.
As Laura takes her seat in what she calls a “closet-sized environment” so she can talk one-on-one with the prisoner on the other side of the wall, all she has between her and a convicted felon is a sealed door and the power of Shakespeare. “For prisoners, so many of them have been told their entire lives that they’re not smart; they can’t handle basic education,” says Laura. “A lot of them are dropouts, and for them to master what is the ultimate achievement in literature is a really, really big deal for them.”
IVY recently hosted an Ideas Night with Laura in Chicago to talk about her innovative work and ways she’s working to change prison culture with a little help from the 400-year-old bard himself. Before the talk, we sat down with Laura one-on-one to hear her powerful story first hand and learn why she chose Shakespeare and prison reform as her calling.
IVY is a social university dedicated to inspiring connection, collaboration, and growth. To learn more, visit IVY.com.