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Detroit Area Women’s Prison Shakespeare Program ‘Liberates’ Inmates

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You don’t normally associate Shakespeare with prison, but that is exactly what’s happening in Ypsilanti at the maximum security Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Complex. WWJ’s Kathryn Larson had exclusive access and brings you the story you’ll only see here.

Nearly 2000 inmates call this 140 acre maximum security prison home. Huron Valley Prison has a 3-mile perimeter that is continuously patrolled.

On a cold snowy day, women serving hard time are using their hearts and minds.

This is Shakespeare in Prison. It’s a first-of-its-kind program for the women’s prison, and one facilitator Frannie Shepherd teaches these women skills they can use in the real world. Shepherd-Bates said, “Obviously public speaking, which is huge, and being able to think creatively on your feet which is great for when you’re released into the community.”

The women are reading a monologue from Hamlet. But Shepherd-Bates says they aren’t reading the Ophelia parts right now. Shepherd-Bates explained, “I feel like, in Shakespeare, all the parts were played by men, so at this point if the parts are played by women we’re kind of balancing the scales. And I feel like it doesn’t matter what the gender of a character is — if you can access that emotion.

And accessing emotion is something Warden Millicent Warren has championed. For the last decade, she’s pulled the “behind bars” curtain back, infusing a prisoner’s time with enriching programs. Warren said, “We’ve had women go on and graduate with bachelor’s degrees. Things we never thought we’d see happen.”

As we walk through the extra curricular building, once a school for the mentally ill, seeing the library, classrooms and schedule of classes you get a sense of their recipe for success.

Warren described her philosophy of enrichment, “I do believe we all have a right to education …” She continued saying, “… give them different paths to solving their problems. Being better parents. Being better neighbors, because most prisoners are going to go back to our communities and I would rather have somebody who’s got better skillset to be able to function in society as we expect them to than ones who’ve just been locked up and not had that development.”

And besides Shakespeare, these women take classes in everything from horticulture to crocheting.

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Due to prison regulations we weren’t able to talk to the women on camera, but what we’ve heard is that they find the program fulfilling. Shepherd-Bates added, “Last session one of them actually said that she felt liberated getting up there and doing Shakespeare and the rest of them all kind of nodded in agreement, ‘Yeah, we feel free. We feel liberated. This is empowering. This is great.'”

Shepherd-Bates says the inmates would like to put on a series of monologues and Acts from various Shakespeare Productions nine months from now. The 17 women participating meet every Tuesday and Thursday 8:30-10:30 a.m.

Deputy Karri Osterhout listed some of the many ways the prisoners give back to the community saying, “The Horticulture students harvested 12,509 pounds of produce from their vegetable gardens which was donated to Food Gatherers to assist in the fight against hunger. The prisoners also give back by fixing WOW vehicles for Goodwill Industries, making cabinetry and other projects for Habitat for Humanity, socializing and training dogs for the Humane Society of Huron Valley so the dogs are adoptable, and completing crocheting and knitting projects for shelters, hospitals and victims of natural disasters. In October, our prisoner population donated $1488.00 to Susan G. Komen For The Cure for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

As part of their restorative justice initiative a panel of prisoners speak out to at-risk youth on how to break the cycle of incarceration.

Crocheting projects made by prisoners donated to those in need in the community. All materials are donated by volunteers.

Warden Warren says they are in desperate need of a new curtain for their auditorium. If you’d like to donate cloth or can help the inmates work on a new one — please contact the prison at the information below.

If you’d like to help with a donation of materials or to volunteer, please contact Deputy Osterhout at 734-434-9625 or osterhoutk@michigan.gov.

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