Something wonderful happened in Muskegon 6 years ago!
Something terrible happened in Muskegon last week!
In 2011, Founder and Director Curt Tofteland was given permission by then Warden Mary Berghuis to start an innovative program in the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility called Shakespeare Behind Bars. Hardened criminals reciting Shakespeare? Who woulda thunk it?
Curt’s explanation of the program: Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.
I’ve had the privilege of attending some of these sessions behind bars. What a remarkable experience it was to join with these men, sitting in a large circle, and listening to one of their members in the center reciting lengthy passages of Shakespeare…and doing it with drama and with fire, walking around, pointing a finger, shaking a fist! One after another took the stage. There was so much more to the program than I can describe here. Inmates had to meet requirements to get in, and then there was a program of advancement for participants. Prisoners not only met the demands, but thrived on it! It involved a huge commitment, but it changed lives!
In 2015, the program expanded across the street to the West Shoreline Correctional Facility.
Over the past six years, more than 400 inmates in these two Michigan prisons participated in Shakespeare Behind Bars. Curt doesn’t have exact statistics, but about 100 of those prisoners are now in the free world. And while the state’s recidivism numbers hover around 30%---that is, about one in free wind up back behind bars---the SBB rate was around 5%!
One of the exciting things about this positive program is that it didn’t cost the state anything. There was no expense. No cost, only profit.
And that’s what makes last week’s experience even more puzzling.
Director Curt Tofteland was summoned to a brief meeting with the Deputy Wardens of those two prisons, and informed that Shakespeare Behind Bars no longer “fit into the current programming of those two facilities.” A stunned Tofteland was informed that this was his last day. He left, never to return.
What must those prisoners who participated in that impactful program be thinking?
Just when we thought we were making progress in Michigan.
One only hopes that, even though the program is dead, the prisoners whose lives were changed by SBB will at least remember the words of Shakespeare that live on: Love all, trust few, do wrong to none.