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University of Michigan Press
Shakespeare Behind Bars: One Teacher's Story of the Power of Drama in a Women's Prison

Shakespeare Behind Bars: One Teacher's Story of the Power of Drama in a Women's Prison

by Jean Trounstine


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In this deeply stirring account, Jean Trounstine, who spent 10 years teaching at Framingham (MA) Women's Prison, focuses on six inmates who, each in her own way, discover in the power of Shakespeare a way to transcend the painful constraints of incarceration. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a powerful story about the redemptive power of art and education.
Originally published in cloth in 2001, the paperback includes a new foreword that will inspire all teachers who work with students others have deemed unteachable. A new afterword updates readers on the prison art's program — and the author herself — since 2001.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472030095
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 02/09/2004
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Shakespeare Behind Bars

One Teacher's Story of the Power of Drama in a Women's Prison
By Jean R. Trounstine

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2004 Jean R. Trounstine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472030094

Chapter One


O that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!

King Richard II, III-III-136

Bertie swings elegantly into my classroom wearing a multicolored striped hat of African design, perfectly pressed white pants, and a crisp sleeveless orange shirt tied at the waist. It is 1986, and she is dressed more for a rendezvous at a cafe on Boston's posh Newbury Street than for a stay in prison. There is a sheen of sweat on her muscled brown arms, a tautness that I associate with cheerleaders and athletes, and a grace that often comes from years of ballet. I imagine her sipping a glass of red wine, a man hanging on her every gesture. Suddenly she yells loudly at the recreation officer down the hall, saunters in, and tosses me a smile as if we've known each other for years.

I like her immediately but can't get over how young she is, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one at most. I'm a high school teacher, and the last place I ever expected to be was teaching in Framingham Prison, Massachusetts's most secure facility for female offenders. But there's something about a woman who dares to get in trouble that has always been close to my heart. As a sixties rebel, I lived in a commune, had unsafe sex, and moved in with someone I'd known for only twenty-four hours. And now, as a dedicated teacher who has difficulty knowing where the classroom ends and home life begins, I've taught drug-addicted city kids in residential treatment centers, girls who've run away, and troubled teens who've come back to visit me long after they've left my classes. But all that aside, I never expected to be teaching college in a women's prison; and like most people, I am filled with prejudices, fears, and garbled TV images about the community of women living behind bars.

Two inmates seated at the long table look over at Bertie and whisper to each other. The tone of their sighs and phony coughs lets me know something is up. The one who calls herself Kit pulls a Camel out of her jeans jacket pocket and taps it at least ten times on the tabletop. She wears her hair up in a tight ponytail with strands of hair straggling out, making her look bedraggled and old. I notice that she has purplish rings under her eyes and no teeth. I overhear her complain, "They think my false teeth are a goddamn weapon."

I can feel how much she dislikes Bertie, and at first, I assume it's about race. Kit is white, and at this point, before the rest of the writing class has arrived, so are the others who sit around the table. I remember reading stories about race riots at Attica and conjure up frightening pictures of criminals beating one another with sticks.

Bertie seems unfazed by Kit's grousing. She hands me a slip of green paper that has the words, "Permission to Enter" at the top and a scrawled signature at the bottom. When I look at my attendance sheet, she says, "Hi, I'm Ber-tie. You won't find me on your list." I like her accent, the way she trips over her words with a lilt. I figure she might be from the Caribbean, although no one has mentioned much about these women. "It's policy," the program coordinator told me. "You're better off not knowing their crimes, so don't ask. Just do your job and leave. We only run into trouble with instructors who try to get too close."

Bertie moves gracefully toward me, the books under her arm almost sliding onto the table. We are in Program Room 2--a small room in which a blackboard covered with chalk dust, its tray without chalk, teeters in the corner. Everything about Bertie is youthful petulance: her sense of style, the flamboyant hat even though she has nowhere to go, an actor's sense of timing, a way of talking with her whole body. No lines on her smooth face. An arched neck drawn from a Modigliani painting, so that her chin juts out triumphantly. Her hands are dotted with rings--these are the days before jewelry and clothing privileges are taken away--and her nails painted a flamingo hot pink, a color that inspires salsa music. I want to know why someone this young is sitting in my prison English class. I want to know what she's in for.

"'Bertie' must be short for something," I say, trying to sound experienced. I don't want to let on that every moment is extremely dramatic for me, filled with people who seem larger than life but who are nonetheless confined and controlled at every turn. Yet, in an odd way, prison also seems ordinary. Walking to my classroom, down a dingy white corridor painted too many times so that the paint is peeling and cracked on the ceiling, I could be in any aging institution. Posters on the walls advertise evening activities; there's a mop sink tucked into a hallway nook; a few tissues are strewn along floorboards. More than anything I am struck by the amount of noise I hear: women's voices mixed with raucous laughter; some low rumbling over a loudspeaker and announcements for visits, packages or medication lines; the shuffle of shoes on a floor above me blended with singing and church music; yelling and cheering and basketballs reverberating off backboards in a gym; rock music filtering down from somewhere; the sounds of Spanish, as women call out to one another from corners or from dinner lines; and incessantly, women's whispers hovering in hallways.

But at this moment, with all eyes focused on Bertie, who has brought tension into the room with her, I put on my detached voice: "Did you add this class?"

Bertie places one hand on her hip and another casually on my shoulder and shakes her head: "Girl, I didn't have much of a choice. This is prison. It was ESL or you."

A middle-aged prisoner who is knitting a white baby bunting bursts into a throaty laugh. She has a pug nose and pockmarked face, and her blond beehive reminds me of a racetrack bookie's. I figure large breasts and pale coloring have earned her the nickname "Dolly," after Dolly Parton. She turns her palm up, and Bertie sashays over to her. "Give me five," Dolly says as Bertie slaps her hand.

Bertie turns back to me. "My real name's Jasmine, but everyone calls me Bertie."

Kit sneers, muttering something about Bertie's crime to another woman across the room, who shakes her head. This one I don't know yet, but she's got the name "Ana Lou" tattooed on her biceps and wears a baseball cap backwards. Later I find out that her name is Cody and her mother's a schoolteacher, a "grammar fanatic" with what she calls "red-pen mentality." Cody guffaws a lot and keeps cigarettes tucked in the turned-up sleeve of her T-shirt like James Dean. She's in cahoots with Kit in some way I can't figure out.

Suddenly the room is dead quiet. I look at Kit, who is still muttering under her breath. She's crossed her arms and stonewalls Dolly and Bertie, refusing to smile at the warm humor between the two. Cody shoots a nasty look in their direction. She seems to be angry, but it's all silence and chill, as though words would hold less weight.

Dolly beckons Bertie to sit down next to her, patting the chair, and gives the hostile two a nod that signals them to back off. "She belongs with us," Dolly pipes up in my direction. Her tone has shifted. She's serious now. "ESL won't get her anywhere. She needs to learn to write, right?"

"Thanks, Ma," Bertie replies casually to Dolly. I sense that Bertie is in for more than prostitution or drugs, but I don't ask, and in some way, as much as I want answers, I am afraid that knowing would prejudice me, make it harder to teach. I smile politely at Bertie, adding her name to my roster, and wonder why she calls Dolly "Ma."

Bertie sits as though she was made for the chair, giving the orange tie on her sleek tummy a little pull and crossing her legs. The hostile two are about to make a comment, but Dolly shushes them. I'm wondering if I should abandon all lesson plans and let the women write nonstop for two hours. At least that way they wouldn't have to talk to each other.

There's some argument in the hall, and Kit and Cody rush to the door. Connors, the correction officer who led me down the hallway earlier tonight, appears at the doorway. "Cool your jets, ladies. You aren't going anywhere," she spouts at Kit and Cody. While Kit and Cody disgruntedly head back to their chairs, Connors turns to me. She points out names on my roster. "They're at basketball. Cross them off your list."

Connors looks about twenty-six and, like most correction officers, had barely ten weeks' training before becoming a CO. She chews gum, "contraband" for the prisoners or contract employees like myself, and she doesn't crack a smile. "Turn around and face the wall," she said tonight with this deadpan voice after she cornered me in the tiny room off the main entrance where everyone has to be pat-searched before they set foot in Framingham. These are the days before high-tech scanners and computers that open and shut doors, before a new brick gateway with its antiseptic cleanliness makes entering Framingham almost effortless. Then she said, "Hands out to your side. Spread your legs. That's it. All right, take off your shoes. Show me the bottoms of your feet. Good. Head forward. Hair. Behind the ears. Good. Stick out your tongue. Okay, open your mouth wide." I mumbled something in response, knowing why she had to search me but wanting to hurl something at her, angry words, a punch, anything to offset this invasion of my body. Somehow I rose above anger and tried to make her laugh, but that didn't work with Connors. She's a follow-all-orders type who insists that she be called only by her last name. When I asked her what it was like to search people, she gave me an indifferent look. "College teacher or not, you have to follow rules. Prisons," Connors reminded me, "model themselves on the military."

I give Connors a nod and start to ask her more about the students who are absent, but she's off, talking to a few other inmates in the hallway. A big black woman with a thick neck and arms of hammered steel comes in moments later, huffing and puffing as if she's climbed up two flights of stairs. She stops in the doorway and scans the room before she enters. I guess that she senses the energy, which, from where I sit, seems kinetic, almost dangerous. But if she does, she doesn't show it. She walks slowly around the chairs toward Bertie, measuring her steps. She has a limp and drags a leg behind her, which makes her look older than her fortyish years, but I like her slow gait, the solid ankles that support a frame made for work, contrasting with her delicate long fingers and tiny eyes. She has bifocals on a red string draped around her neck. "I'm Mamie," she says, a polite nod in my direction.

Kit and Cody give her the cold shoulder, but Mamie couldn't care less. She says she's looking forward to our writing class, and when Cody and Kit snicker, she says it again, only this time louder and pointedly at them. Then she seats herself next to Bertie, whose face immediately lights up when Mamie says, "I got some plant cuttings for your room. Purple mums. Prettiest flowers I rescued this week."

"Mamie's the prison gardener," Dolly says, aiming a knitting needle in my direction. "Brings the girls greenery. Real nice." Kit makes some kind of coughing sound and Cody chuckles, but Mamie is unruffled. She has a stack of greeting cards in her hand, one of which she shows to Bertie. It's clear that even in a women's prison there is a pecking order, and that Mamie and Dolly have taken Bertie under their wing to protect her from women who sling slurs at her.

When Mamie sees me leaning over to look at her artwork, she says, "I make poems." She holds up a card. It's filled with handwriting and bits of pressed dried flowers. I smile at her and check her name off my attendance list.

"I spend my days in the greenhouse," Mamie continues, "but I was a nurse in the free world." As she pulls her chair into the table, she looks straight at Cody and then at Kit, "We must be about ready to start this class, right, ladies?" And as the women turn to me, I know opening night's begun.

It will be weeks before I feel that I know these women and months before we begin producing a play at Framingham. After all, this is only my first class. I am meeting my students.


Excerpted from Shakespeare Behind Bars by Jean R. Trounstine Copyright © 2004 by Jean R. Trounstine.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Author's Forewordix
The Play180
Author's Afterword243

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