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Shakespeare in prison
The Bard's plays provide therapy at Rogers State Prison near Reidsville
081811 PRISON SHAKESPEARE 01 web
Rogers State Prison mental health counselor Kevin Crabtree uses videos and adaptations in 21st Century English to make Shakespeare more accessible to inmates. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The scene: Rogers State Prison. Amid green fields and razor-wire topped fences near Reidsville, medium-security Rogers houses 1,487 male inmates, many of whom work on the surrounding 9,700-acre farm that supplies food to other prisons statewide. Inside: A shiny, tiled visitation room with words like "RESPECT" and "PURPOSE" painted on the walls.
    Dramatis personae: *17 inmates. Their offenses range from property and drug crimes to murder. All are members of the subset of 300-350 men in the prison's mental health caseload. But that can mean anything from anxiety and adjustment issues that trouble their sleeping to long-term illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder. * 2 licensed counselors. * Various other prison personnel.

Act 1
    The men, all wearing Georgia's white prison uniform with the broad navy blue sidewall stripe, don't so much file in as drift in. Without a single self-conscious joke or snicker, these world-hardened, mostly middle-aged men sit down in front of a big TV and watch faeries cavort in woods near ancient Athens in a movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
    Saying things like, "Dude, seriously ... what's up with that?" and generally sounding like one really cool English teacher, mental health counselor Kevin Crabtree quizzes the men on their background knowledge. Yes, they are aware that Shakespeare wrote in England 400 years ago. They often express amazement at how fresh the plays seem.
    In the first five months the Shakespeare Group's existence, the men have watched, to some extent read, and discussed at length the tragedies “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Hamlet,” the tragicomic “Merchant of Venice” and now, “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”
    Even with this fantastic comedy, Crabtree and fellow counselor, Brett Curtas, are able to steer the discussion toward real-world issues. It's a story about people crazy-in-love. So the counselors ask who has been in a relationship, who is in one now, and how that is working out.
    "And then all of a sudden we're talking about different relationships: We're talking about holding their marriage together while they're in prison," Crabtree explains. "But  it's OK because it's a movie and not their own stuff."
   
Act 2
    With two hours available for each weekly session, the group usually spends 30-45 minutes watching part of a play in movie form. The discussion follows.
    But today, Crabtree and Curtas take the Shakespeare Group in a new direction, having the men do dramatic readings of a scene from the previously covered "Othello." This tragedy, with its themes of suspicion, jealousy and betrayal, has been a group favorite.
    Assigned to select parts for the readings, the men put their own stamp on the play by casting a white actor as a Othello, the Moor, and a black actor as Iago.
    Crabtree has provided them photocopies of a "No Fear Shakespeare" text with parallel passages in Shakespeare's original blank verse and a contemporary prose update. Sometimes they revert to the original for poetic effect, but insist on the updated version when it means asking simply, "What is it, Iago?" versus, "What dost thou say?"
    Inmates' reading abilities vary greatly, with a middle-school level assumed as average. But Crabtree likes to point out that Shakespeare's original crowd included pickpockets and other individuals familiar with jail, as well as many people who couldn't read at all.
    "When you went to see one of these plays when they were new, no one gave you a book and told you to write a paper about it. It was fun. You didn't have to know how to read. So why should these guys have to know how to read?" he says.
    Crabtree, who earned his master's degree in clinical psychology from Georgia Southern University in 2006, created the Shakespeare Group at Rogers, where he has been working for nine months. For four years before that, he was assigned to neighboring Georgia State Prison, where he worked with supermax inmates, considered the state's most dangerous and often on 23-hour lockdown. GSP has since been converted to medium security status.
    In the former supermax unit, he did book therapy, using "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Of Mice and Men" and "Lord of the Flies" as a way to discuss feelings with men who did not admit to having any.
    At Rogers, he previously led music therapy, a similar approach in which the group listened to music as a pathway to talking things out.
    He saw Shakespeare as a way to do book therapy without books. A single video is much easier to get than 20 books, and as Crabtree explains, the program has "no budget ... zero dollars."
   
Act 3
    While it may be a counselor's trick to turn a movie discussion into therapy, it's a trick the men willingly embrace. Only members of the mental health caseload can participate, but participation is voluntary, and the group is operating near capacity.
    "Really it's all of us as diverse people, all of us with different backgrounds, different education levels, getting together and shedding all that and talking about the root of some of why we're here. It's a lot of reaction, a lot of human emotion. ..." said inmate Jeffrey Booker. "It could have been drugs. It could have been alcohol. It could have been hate, love; it could have been any number of things that made us do something or be a part of something that brought us here."
    Booker, 50, hails from the Atlanta area. He is 16 months into a seven-year sentence for check forgery. He previously served one year in county and state facilities for a different crime and was out  for five years between convictions.
    One of two inmates suggested by the prison staff and approved by the Department of Corrections for interviews, Booker is a high school graduate, and reads anything he can get his hands on. He was introduced to Shakespeare in school, but didn't relate to it the way he does after three more decades of living.
    "Certainly in eighth and ninth grade that wasn't my big thing, to listen to Shakespeare. I was not interested. But now, later in the years, being able to go back and read and study it now, it's very interesting," Booker said.
    He wanted to express appreciation to Warden Brad Hooks for supporting the program, and also to put the word out for adding a 12-step program for addiction recovery, something the prison doesn't have now.
    A Midsummer Night's Dream is Booker's favorite play yet.
    But Keola James prefers Othello. "I can relate to it, being crossed after someone turned against you," he said.
    James, 35, originally from California, is now serving a life sentence in Georgia for a 2008 murder conviction in Cobb County. It was, he explained, not a case of premeditated murder, but a death that occurred as a result of another felony, aggravated assault. He will eventually be eligible for parole.
    Also a high school graduate, James has lately been reading James Patterson thrillers. He wasn't exposed to Shakespeare in high school, but later read Romeo and Juliet on his own. His mother was very active in church and community theater in California and put him in church plays as a child.
    "I believe everybody's getting something out of it in their own way," James said.
   
Act 4
    Top prison staff members support the program.
    "There's a lot of talent behind these walls," said John Brown, deputy warden for security. As he sees it, while some of the men locked up at Rogers have done horrible things, for most incarceration is the result of bad decisions.
    Brown says the therapy gives them something positive to do, and that more things like it are probably needed. The prison offers some GED and Adult Basic Education classes, but nothing else like the Shakespeare Group.
    Like other privileges, it also furnishes a carrot for good behavior. In order to participate, the men must treat one another with respect through each two-hour session.
    "It's kind of a way for us to say to them, if you can conduct yourself well enough to participate in Mr. Crabtree's program, you can conduct yourself that way all the time," Brown said.
    Warden Hooks sees that too.
    "That has had a positive effect on our population," Hooks said. "That's pretty amazing how many folks are volunteering to go to that class, and you've got folks with IQs that maybe can't read Shakespeare, but they're doing it. They're getting to act it out and it gives them the opportunity to maybe compare their crime and put themselves in the position of the folks in Shakespeare."
   
Act 5
    When the counselors ask how many of the men would be interested in actually putting on a play, most of them raise a hand.
    Shakespeare Behind Bars, founded by Curt Tofteland at Kentucky's Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, has been Crabtree's inspiration. Since 1995, that program has involved more than 200 inmates in performing one or two plays per year for prison and public audiences. It was the subject of a 2005 documentary film of the same name.
    The Kentucky program reports that only 7.5 percent of released former participants have re-offended, compared to a 29.5 percent recidivism rate for Kentucky as of the year 2000 and 67 percent nationally in a 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics study. Of course, the only inmates who participate are those motivated to do so, and there's no way to know what their recidivism rate would be if they hadn't.
    The Shakespeare therapy group at Rogers State Prison is not affiliated with nonprofit Shakespeare Behind Bars Inc., but Crabtree has communicated with Tofteland.
    Some 15-20 Rogers inmates not in the mental health caseload have asked to be part of the group, but aren't allowed at this point. Crabtree hopes to remove that obstacle by partnering with the prison's education department.
    Meanwhile, the men are deciding how to translate Othello into their own vernacular version as if they were going to perform it. If nothing else, this provides a new variation on the therapy, Crabtree said.
    For there ever to be a performance for the prison population or visitors, the warden will have to be convinced by a detailed plan.
    "They're going to have to give me a little more information on it and let me look at it before I can make a determination. ... I want to see a plan first," Hooks said.
   
    Statesboro Herald photographer Scott Bryant contributed to this story.

 

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