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Last updated: Tue. Feb. 18, 2014 - 07:09 am EDT

Huntington University professor sharing Shakespeare with prison inmates

The program helps Pendleton maximum-security inmates examine their own lives

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A Huntington University professor has established a program at the Pendleton Correctional Facility to give inmates a chance to rehabilitate themselves by relating the works of William Shakespeare to their own experiences.

The Shakespeare at Pendleton program, which also increases cultural opportunities for inmates, was established in October by Jack Heller, an associate professor of English.

Pendleton Correctional Facility is a maximum-security prison that holds about 1,800 inmates and is located in Madison County north of Indianapolis.

Heller has volunteered occasionally with the Shakespeare Behind Bars program for seven years. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a nonprofit organization that incorporates theater productions of Shakespeare's plays into inmate rehabilitation, helping with their reintegration into society, it said on the organization's website, www.shakespearebehindbars.org.

Recently, Heller decided to pursue his own prison program after another person involved in theater challenged him to work with inmates on a regular basis.

In order to work at the prison, Heller had to go through a criminal background check. Each time he visits the facility, he also has to have his belongings searched and X-rayed. This process helps prevent anyone from bringing in drugs, weapons, cell phones or other contraband into the prison.

“I don't mind going through the security check; I expected it as being what I must do to be able to work with the Shakespeare participants,” Heller said in an email interview.

The inmates are currently working on “Coriolanus,” which is the last tragedy written by Shakespeare and whose central theme revolves around anger.

“Coriolanus” takes its name after Caius Martius, a proud soldier in the ruling aristocracy of ancient Rome. In the aftermath of famine and a war with an Italian tribe, Martius — who has been given the name of Coriolanus for his courageous actions — earns the opportunity to rise to a higher position of power. However, he needs the votes of plebeians — the commoners — who Coriolanus covertly despises.

Even though the plebeians give Coriolanus their votes, two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, cleverly persuade them to instead brand him an enemy. Coriolanus ultimately is exiled, where he struggles with whether to plot revenge.

“I would like for the men to wrestle with what roles they are assuming,” Heller said in a university news release about his program.

Since the program is still new, the inmates are currently reading through the play, but are working toward a performance of some kind, he said in the news release. If costumes eventually are involved, it would have to be something that the inmates could wear over their prison khakis.

“I am not sure that we will perform a full play in our first year,” Heller said via email. “I rather think we will work on a show of a few scenes from 'Coriolanus,' perhaps interspersed with their own reflections based on the play.”

Heller also explained how, when an inmate chooses a character, he can become conflicted because it will resonate with his past life. He hopes the men can maintain the growth they experience while in the program, even after they are finished.

He recently was granted approval to bring a group of Huntington University students to Pendleton to have them work with the inmates for one class session on “Coriolanus.” This trip will be taken within the next few weeks.

“You realize the purpose for visiting the prisoner is what we can do for them,” Heller said in the news release. “It's also about what we can learn about ourselves and that can be our motivation to keep involved in the inmates' lives.”

cmccallister@news-sentinel.com


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