Prelude: Laura Bates grew up in a rough neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Many of her neighbors and classmates ended up in prison. Thus began her passion for realizing that learning begins at different times in one’s life and even in the worst situations, there is good that can come out of learning. Fortunately for her, she had strong parents who instilled in her the power of learning, and that “we all have something to contribute to make this a better place.”
Brian: What led you to become an educator, and why English?
Laura: My parents didn’t have the opportunity of higher education, but had a high respect for education and the value of education. Both of my parents came from the Baltic States (Latvia). They came here as World War II refugees. Their education was interrupted by the war. They always had a love for learning, education and especially books. My dad was a reader and writer, and our house was always filled with books. My sister and I were the first generations to go into college. I worked my way through graduate school. I think you learn from not only your good professors, but from your not-so-good professors. I learned here is what I would do different or here is what I would like to do. I started teaching part time while in graduate school.
Brian: Where did you go to undergraduate and graduate school?
Laura: I started out in a small college, Columbia College of Chicago in the first year that they were accredited. They had a very interesting and creative writing program. The classes were taught by actual working, publishing writers opposed to the traditional college journalism professors. I thought that was very exciting. I got to work with a wide range of professional writers. I did receive two masters degrees from Northeastern Illinois. The first M.A. degree was in theater and the second in English.
Brian: What brought you to Indiana State University?
Laura: Part of what attracted me to Indiana State University and Terre Haute was their prison program. When I saw that Indiana State University had a college credit program, I was very excited about the opportunity. At one point, I thought I would end up full-time in the prison program at the expense of the campus teaching. As you probably know, Indiana State University no longer has that program, but it was seen as a model program nationwide at the time.
Brian: Why did they discontinue the program?
Laura: Well, the state legislature abolished higher education funding for incarcerated populations. I understand they are looking at opening it up again. The research has shown that it has a huge impact on recidivism. There is a lot to be gained to the incarcerated population by offering higher education. The problem is who is going to pay for it. The taxpayers, rightfully so, don’t want to be the ones funding that program. I have always thought that there should be some mechanism for the prisoners to pay it back. It is clear that education is beneficial to them and hopefully keeps them out of prison.
Brian: After they abolished the program did you continue to teach in the prison?
Laura: At that point, I was starting a volunteer program. It was especially needed at that point. There were a lot of prisoners involved in an education program. Once the programs were abolished, the prisoners had nothing to occupy their minds in a positive way. To clarify it for the readers, my activity in prison was in two different directions. One was teaching college credit classes for prisoner students enrolled in college credit programs. Once that stopped, it became voluntary on my part and it is voluntary on the prisoner’s part, there is nobody forcing them to participate and there is no degree and no external benefit other than simply to learn.
Brian: Talk about the difference between teaching in college versus teaching in prison.
Laura: The main thing is the motivation of the students themselves. On campus, it is a requirement of the program or-and they paid for it. To some extent for most students they feel like they need to be there. On the other hand in prison, each day that I go into a prison class, each person who is there made a choice to be there that day. They are much more engaged. In prison you are going to get a lot more interaction. One of the things that is big a difference is the size of classes. In college there might be 45 students in one class, whereas in prison there might be only six or so.
Brian: How many classes do you teach at ISU?
Laura: I teach three different classes each semester, do committee work and research. My areas of specialization are Shakespeare, children’s literature and a world literature class. I have brought my prison Shakespeare experience into my college elementary literature classes because I learned through working with prisoners that it is at that elementary level that a lot of their criminal paths began. I have a special project that I do with my college students that has them learning from the prisoner’s childhood experiences to be able to reach out to troubled kids (better teachers).
Brian: Why does teaching Shakespeare to prisoners work so well?
Laura: What I have learned from the prisoners is that all other prisoner programs are geared toward behavior modifications (improving the prisoner). All start with the premise that you are broken and I know how to fix you. You the prisoner, you’re a loser and you have done everything wrong your entire life and I’m the outsider, the psychologist or the administrator or whoever it is who is leading the program. At this point, the walls go up for the prisoner and they aren’t going to do anything they are told to do. Then, here I come. I’m a volunteer not a paid psychologist or administrator, and I’m offering them the opportunity to read Shakespeare. I tell them that I don’t think they are a loser and that I think they can do this. It means a lot to them that someone has that much confidence in them.
Brian: What transition have you seen in the prisoners through teaching them Shakespeare?
Laura: The main prisoner who is the subject of my book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years In Solitary With The Bard.” Larry Newton, is the one I have seen the most change, although he is not the only one. For him in particular, it has now been 12 years that he has been working with Shakespeare and it continues to be a positive force in his life. During the 12 years, he has had no violent offenses or violent conduct.
Brian: How did this experience with Larry Newton, influence your approach to the other prisoners?
Laura: When we were both at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (he is in a different prison now), we went through a different range of working together. Initially, he was in solitary confinement for 10 years. When he got out the first place they let him go was to my Shakespeare class. We did a one on one for hours for the first year, and then the second year he was allowed to join the group. Once it had that life changing impact for him, he told me that he thought we could use Shakespeare to help influence some of the other prisoners. He and I together created a series of workbooks that we used and lessons and activities to help the prisoners examine their choices through looking at Shakespeare. I think we have changed and even saved a few lives.
Brian: How did the book come about?
Robin: MSNBC was spending a week at the Wabash Valley Correction facility. They had a series called “The Lock Up” and they were doing different features. They chose my Shakespeare classes as one of the segments. The book probably wouldn’t have happened if it were not for this episode. An agent emailed me with the title that said, “Query from a literary agent,” I didn’t know who it was and I had my finger poised over the delete button. The other irony is that she said there is a book here. I said that I already have started a book. I had been recording my conversations with Larry and I had already been gathering the material. I had a rough draft started, but it changed considerably after I started working on it again with the agent. After all of that, I was able to release the book “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years In Solitary with the Bard.”
Brian: You did a study on 20 of the 200 prisoners you have taught Shakespeare to in solitary confinement. What kind of impact has it had?
Laura: The study of the 20 prisoners revealed that they have become less violent. In every case they became less violent. It gives them a purpose and a way to examine their own lives. We’re not even saying to them that Shakespeare will change you, but read it because other prisoners have read it and it has made a difference in their lives. I was in Indianapolis doing a book signing and one of my former prison program students came up to me. He was being honored as one of Indiana’s upcoming authors for a book he had written about what he learned in prison and about how to be a better person. I had two other students who are now working on PHD programs. All three are doing things that are intended to help others. My message in all of my talks is that anybody can do it and everybody should do it. I always emphasize that the “it” doesn’t have to be Shakespeare or prisons.
Brian: Tell me what “it” is?
Laura: Doing good! Take your specialty that you have, your special passion. Use it to improve and change the lives of others. And most especially, if we can reach the kids, that’s where it is really important is to reach them before they mess up.
Brian: Tell us about your other book?
Laura: It hasn’t been completed yet and it is already being adapted for the stage. It has nothing to do with prisons. It is a collection of over 100 letters that were written between 1945 and 1950. The letters were written between two World War II refugees. It starts just after the war when the man is in the POW camp and the woman is in a DP camp. They both have lost all of their families including their spouses. It was my mom and dad. They first meet when my mom went to the POW camp to look for her husband.
Brian: What is the theme of this book?
Laura: It is about their struggles and the changes in their lives. They started correspondence because once they met one another; they realized that they shared this condition of complete isolation. Which in a way is the same type of situation as the Larry situation. In their case, they lost their home, their country, their family and everything. During the five years of correspondence a lot of changes happened to them. Eventually, they reunite in this country and marry. I like to think that this represents a personal story that 50 million people went through. Even though there were 50 million plus who died, there were 50 million refugees whose lives were destroyed. Today, since World War II we have 50 million refugees. I think they represent them, as well.
Brian: You have found something that you like and you have turned into a tool to help other people.
Laura: That’s great. That’s the exact words that Larry used. These are stories that are more than just good stories; these can be tools for “changing lives.” ###