“Make not your thoughts your prisons”

Ethnographer Laura Nicklin explores how Shakespeare is changing prisoners’ lives in the US

Being granted a Santander International Connections Award to conduct my research was a gift beyond my wildest dreams. It enabled me to travel to several US states and visit Shakespeare-focussed criminal rehabilitation programmes that are completely unique to these places.

Laura Nicklin

My trip involved travelling to four states over two months to visit arts based, mostly Shakespeare-focused, juvenile and adult criminal rehabilitation programmes.

Some of these were based in prisons or juvenile detention centres whilst others served as alternative sentences, avoiding incarcerating people whilst still providing a rehabilitative process for them.



Holland Harbor Lighthouse, Michigan (image credit: Rodney Campbell)
Holland Harbor Lighthouse, Michigan (Image credit: Rodney Campbell)

The first stop in my tour was Michigan where I was able to visit a series of Shakespeare and arts based programmes in prisons. Through this I was also able to meet one of my inspirations, Curt Tofteland, who founded the first  Shakespeare behind Bars Programme in Kentucky twenty years ago. During my time in Michigan I  attended a series of Shakespeare programmes across multiple men’s prisons. This was a phenomenal experience, where I was enabled to work side by side with the prisoners and experience first-hand the courses I am considering in my research study.

My most life altering experience to date: I have never felt more respected or safe than I did with the men I worked with across all levels in these prisons.

The respect and humanity these men shared was an experience beyond anything reading about these programmes could have ever offered. They were engaged, supportive, and excited by their work. They treated me as an equal not an outsider and were willing to share freely with me in the groups. Having been there for an extended period of time I can truthfully state that this was entirely honest. These men get no special reward for participating in these programmes, but they still fully engage and participate by choice out of their enjoyment, passion and experience of what the courses can provide.

I left with a wealth of data for my research that was beyond my expectation, whilst also giving me an irreplaceable human experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.


Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville, Kentucky

The next stop on my journey was Kentucky where I also experienced a series of Shakespeare and arts focussed criminal rehabilitation programmes.  I also got a golden opportunity to connect with more of my inspirations in this field.

Where Michigan had given me a huge insight into his therapeutic nature of conversation, sharing and relationship development, joining Kentucky programmes offered me a profound insight into what Shakespeare specifically offered those involved.

The pride participants have in their work, coupled with their support and respect for each other, offers a lesson in citizenship that would be beneficial to any human being. Shakespeare gave them the space to share this and the language with which to do so, alongside other vital personal development skills. This has not only contributed to personal development, but also as with Michigan, a positive change to the prison environment itself.


From Kentucky I moved on to Massachusetts to visit juvenile Shakespeare programmes and  Shakespeare & Company, who founded Shakespeare focussed alternative sentencing for children.  Such programmes involve children being sentenced to Shakespeare by a court as an alternative to incarceration or other community service.

Groups that I attended required children to attend 4 days a week and participate in discussion tasks, social games and Shakespeare plays. In the short time I was able to join the groups I saw them grow as a community, develop positive peer relationships and grow as a positive community. The practitioners, were phenomenal in their approach to these children as human beings and this provided a fantastic lesson in youth work and approaching juvenile rehabilitation.

These young people come from a range of backgrounds and stories and were by no means perfect in their interactions but as my time progressed I saw them move from participating in something they had to do, to working towards something they were engaged in, excited about and even something they cared about. Laughing at each other moved to laughing with each other or supporting each other through an entirely new experience for them.

New York

New York

My final destination was New York. Here I met students who were both hoping to enter correctional work and students who had previously been on the wrong side of the corrections line, in need of support. Professor Lila McDowell asked me to lecture to a classroom where these two worlds collide, sharing my work, which was a phenomenal experience and sharing my story, background and the doors that my funding had opened for me sparked lots of enthusiasm and interest into how they may get involved also.

I also worked with the prisoner re-entry institute here meeting those who work with ex offender on rebuilding, rehabilitating and re-entering mainstream society.  The work of these people is a big inspiration to myself having experienced at this point a small glimpse of the bigger picture of life behind bars and the potentially life changing difference Shakespeare  and the arts can make .