Prisons are not designed to be pleasant places. They are harsh, cruel, unforgiving. They can be deadly. But within purposely constrictive physical construction and with an emphasis on punishment and a sometime eye-for-an-eye attitude towards those who have done society wrong can still be found art, beauty and healing.

For some inmates, those positives in life are being discovered through the centuries-old words and wisdom of William Shakespeare.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” – As You Like It

Shakespeare was an English-born playwright, poet and actor, a 16th-century artisan whose name merely being mentioned in a modern-day high school english class can elicit its fair share of rolled eyes and groans. (To those guilty of that reaction, give the guy a chance!)

But it’s those works of Shakespeare that are teaching some individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of the United States justice system some important lessons in life, even if they are lessons they wish were perhaps learned a little sooner and for that matter might never be able to enjoy as a free citizen.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” – Julius Caesar

Shakespeare Behind Bars is an inmate program originally founded in 1995 out of the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium-security prison near La Grange, Kentucky.

It’s beginnings started with Curt Tofteland, a professional director, playwright, actor and educator who, in 1989, became the Producing Artistic Director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and in 1990 began an education department to serve schools and the community, including working alongside many students that would be classified as ‘troubled kids’.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Hamlet

“I had witnessed firsthand the healing power of the arts within myself. And because the arts had helped to heal me, I decided to use them to assist others in dealing with their own deeply imbedded issues which often came from a troubled familial background; the lack of a father in the home, violence, addiction, or other challenges that come from an upbringing in poverty-stricken areas within the inner city or in rural areas,” explains Tofteland about why the works of Shakespeare were fundamental in reaching out to these young individuals who might otherwise be considered failures in both the public and private American educational system due to learning deficits, or developmental and behavioural disorders.

It was on this initial success that Tofteland was able to piggyback the seeds of Shakespeare Behind Bars on another established prison program, Books Behind Bars (BBB).

“Be great in act, as you have been in thought.” – King John

“You don’t just walk up to the door of a prison and say, ‘Let me in.’ Prisons are very secluded and isolated places. Prison officials don’t want the public to know what happens behind that razor wire, they’re very secretive,” says Tofteland of his initial experiences with the prison way of doing things.

With the help of Dr. Julie Barto, a prison psychologist and partner with the Books Behind Bars program who had a soft spot for the Bard and whom Tofteland had earlier trained in a week-long teacher training program entitled From the Page to the Stage: Teaching Shakespeare in the Classroom, the middle-school students, who Books Behind Bars was working with outside of the prison walls, were brought together with the BBB prisoners to perform a Shakespeare scene for each other.  Following the performances, the two casts were allowed the opportunity to interact with each other under the watchful gaze of the prison officials.

On Barto’s recommendation Tofteland was issued a weekly guest pass which allowed him the opportunity to work with a group of a dozen Books Behind Bars prisoners. When Barto left Luther Luckett two years later, Shakespeare Behind Bars became its own official independent program separate from the Kentucky Department of Corrections and Tofteland was made the program facilitator.

“What’s done cannot be undone.” – Macbeth

As he continued to expand the introduction of Shakespeare within the confines of Luther Luckett, Tofteland was always respectful of restrictions placed on the program, which at that point included putting on a Shakespeare play a ‘season’ that the prisoners would work on for an entire year.

“I’ve always approached working in prison as being a guest in their house. I’ve never demanded anything, I’ve always tried to be courteous, and when I was told no I couldn’t do something anymore, I’ve let that past go and dealt with the present here and now. That approach is the only successful way to survive working in corrections. Corrections loves routine. Corrections doesn’t like a disruption to its routine.”

Corrections, for their part, have reason to be cautious: the participants in Shakespeare Behind Bars are obviously incarcerated for a reason.

“Imprisoned men and women have often had enormous trauma in their background.  Sometimes they have perpetrated trauma on others.  They were a victim and they became a perpetrator.  Often they don’t have language for their trauma. And the only way for trauma to heal is to find language for it.”

“Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.” – Romeo and Juliet

Despite certain limitations, prisoners usually end up committing 250 hours of their time outside of at least thrice-weekly rehearsals, doing things like looking up the meaning of words in the lexicon and working with a scholar for a week studying the play from a dramaturgical viewpoint.

“Two things happen with story: you either find yourself in the story, or you find empathy. Both of them are very positive achievements.” The prisoners cast themselves in their roles, and in a very Shakespeare-era move men play the female roles.

“I don’t want to make it easy for them,” begins Tofteland. “I want to make them curious and I want to give them tools that not only apply to Shakespeare but apply to anything. Which is doing the research, making decisions, having discussions.”

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.” – All’s Well That Ends Well

With the approval of the Kentucky Department of Corrections a performance schedule is set, and when it’s showtime the curtain goes up on up to five to six performances done on the prison yard for the actors’ fellow inmates.

Another show is performed for the casts’ families and people on their visiting lists, and finally five to six performances for members of the general public for up to 100 audience members. At the conclusion of the last performance an announcement is made for what the next year’s play will be.

The 2005 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars is a very candid look at art helping to give life a new meaning for many.

“O, brave new world that has such people in’t!” – The Tempest

In 2005, the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars by Philomath Films was released to critical acclaim, eventually making the rounds to over 40 festivals around the world including Sundance and winning 11 awards along the way.  In 2008, after 20 years of service Tofteland left the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Tofteland took the Shakespeare Behind Bars program with him and along with his colleagues, Matt Wallace and Holly Stone, made it a 501 c3 Not-For-Profit corporation. Tofteland moved to Michigan and began a Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Ernest C. Brooks and West Shoreline Correctional Facilities in Muskegon Heights.

Rather than duplicate exactly what was being done in Kentucky, Tofteland expanded these programs, of which there are now seven different iterations between the two locations, to include not only the collected works of Shakespeare but the works of any prisoner that considers themselves an artist-be it spoken word poet, rapper, hip-hop performer, country western singer, playwright or journalist.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” – Twelfth Night

Tofteland continues to work on traditional stages as he prepares to direct an upcoming production of The Fantasticks for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, but his experiences within the walls of America’s correctional facilities over the 22 years of his involvement with Shakespeare Behind Bars are always being put to use.

“Everything I’ve done in prison informs me as a professional actor, professional director and playwright. When I went to work in a prison, I found colleagues who had never experienced studying or seeing a Shakespeare play performed.  I found some colleagues who were illiterate or who had third grade reading levels or who had other serious developmental learning challenges.

Perhaps some would say that the prison population is one of the most difficult groups to work with but for me, they’re the most interesting because they have to be captivated by the material and moved to want to participate.”