Thursday, June 18, 2009

"I had to come to prison to be a crook"

Yesterday was my first day off in seven days, so I naturally decided to laze about the apartment, drink coffee and watch a documentary about Kentucky prisoners who perform Shakespeare.

Right, maybe that's not what a lot of people would do with their day off, but that is indeed what I did! The doc I'm talking about is called "Shakespeare Behind Bars," and while I've always been intrigued by it, I let it sit on my Netflix "Watch Instantly" Queue for months. I mean, it's tough to get motivated to watch a documentary that you know won't necessarily be the feel-good Wordplay or timely I.O.U.S.A.

Needless to say, I am very glad to have seen it. It was very moving, and certainly portrays the issue as being in a proverbial "grey area." That issue of course being the prison system and it's effectiveness at rehabilitating criminals. It also tested your ability to empathize with criminals.  My gut reaction sometimes is to write them off all together. They are heinous people who have committed heinous crimes. End of story... But is it really? Is it really the humane thing to do? Isn't it better to educate, rehabilitate, and prepare these people to rejoin society? Criminals or not, they are people. And it's tempting to judge them based on their criminal act, but how can you fully define someone by one thing they did many years ago? I don't know the answers to these questions, and continue to struggle with them since watching the movie. 
Similarly, the film addresses the question of forgiveness. The film challenges the audience to feel for these prisoners, and then in an indirect way to accept and forgive them. Not that there is a right or wrong thing to do or feel in relation to these men, but it really questions our capacity for compassion and understanding in contrast with our judgement, fear, and disdain of these individuals.
The prisoners themselves come to their own realizations about these themes because they are the foremost themes in the play that they are performing. It's none other than Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. As an actor, lover of Shakespeare, and true believer in the power of art in education and rehabilitation, I was especially moved to see how participating in a play effected these inmates. It was truly astounding, and further debunks this idea that Shakespeare is irrelevant, and intangible to modern society. These, primarily uneducated, incarcerated men felt a connection to Shakespeare's characters. And it helped them. In the end isn't prison all about rehabilitating criminals?

Anyway, I'm not sure that I'm making a ton of sense. I just feel like that movie made me think about this otherwise forgotten issue so much that I might have been a little all over the place with this post. You'll have to forgive me, if you can.

Here's Shakespeare Behind Bars. Available for free online via with limited commercial interruption. I highly recommend it.

I also recently saw an old episode of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days. In this particular installment of the FX series, he spent 30 days in prison. It was another eye opening look at the prison system.  I'd recommend this as well. It's very different from Shakespeare Behind Bars, but paints an equally heart-wrenching, confusing, and far more gritty picture of the reality of prison and prison life. The full episode is below, and the entire series is available online thanks to

I hope this sparks some thought or conversation on this topic. I think it's one of those "out of sight out of mind" issues. It's not often discussed, but widely agreed upon that there is a problem in the prison system. It's an issue that we cannot forget about and cannot ignore. Maybe it's easier to feign ignorance to it because it's so unclear what the right thing to do is, or rather how to do it. In either case- something's got to change. If we want prison to yield upstanding citizens instead of repeat offenders, SOMETHING has to be done. 


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