Ah, the transformative powers of education. Last week, we saw the kiddies philosophizing. This week, we learn of prison inmates dramatizing. And this isn’t just any kind of dramatizing, nor is this just any prison: This is Shakespeare as performed by the inmates of the California State Correctional System, in collaboration with the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project.
Forgive us our naiveté if upon spotting this photo we weren’t immediately reminded of a scene from West Side Story. From here it was a short imaginative leap to beatific visions of the Crips and Bloods at California’s notorious San Quentin prison resolving decades of violence through their portrayals of the Jets and Sharks.
Turns out it’s not quite as fanciful as all that.
Indeed, the California Men’s Colony is hardly San Quentin. Nicknamed the “Country Club” and “Camp Snoopy” – the latter because of its resemblance to Snoopy’s doghouse and not, much to our disappointment, because of Snoop Dogg – former inmates include Ike Turner and Timothy Leary. The LSW Prison Project, which was begun by Bruce Wall in London in 1997 and has previously received attention for its popularity at Pentonville prison, comes to CMC through the prison’s Arts in Corrections programme.
The results are impressive. It’s difficult to sell Shakespeare to impressionable youth these days, so we can only imagine the initial scepticism with which the Bard must be greeted behind bars. Yet, reviews have been enormously favourable, and the project’s even found itself a poster child in a 20-year-old whose initial 75-year sentence for assault was reduced to 21 months following his involvement in the programme. He will attend Oxford upon his release. It’s hard to argue with success like that.