During COVID, Shakespeare in Prison program stays connected to Pittsfield Township inmates via mail

Despite the ongoing suspension of prison visitations, programs, and classes due to COVID-19, an initiative by Detroit Public Theatre’s (DPT) Shakespeare in Prison (SIP) program is delivering hope to prisoners at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV).


Since 2012, SIP has been healing and empowering incarcerated people at the Pittsfield Township prison through the works of William Shakespeare. With in-person access to the prison cut off since March, SIP organizers are now creating activity packs that are sent to program participants through the mail. The intention is to offer prisoners not only a continuing connection to the program and the community, but to themselves during uncertain times.


"Without in-person visitations, programming, and classes, people were incredibly isolated and very frightened," says SIP director Frannie Shepherd-Bates. "But not only that. They were also often without any activities or anything to do."


SIP staff mail activity packs every two weeks to about 70 incarcerated people who have participated in the program at WHV. Each activity pack consists of a piece of Shakespeare’s text and prompts encouraging thought, self-reflection, and creativity.


"There are activities that lend themselves to being written, activities that lend themselves to creating visual interpretations and some that lend themselves to performance," Shepherd-Bates says.


According to Shepherd-Bates, SIP staff were inspired by a colleague in England who was sending activity packs to the prisons where she works. The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that the colleague is sending them to every prison in England.


"We thought that we could do something similar that is aligned with our local program," Shepherd-Bates says. "It was perfect because we knew that our services are needed now more than ever and we needed a way to safely provide them."


During the initial stages of planning, input from SIP alumni was considered before deciding on content and approach. As the initiative continues, Shepherd-Bates says "effusive" feedback from alumni is buoying her belief in its benefits.


"Just getting mail is a thrill and a connection with the outside world," she says. "And then to have this continuing connection to a program that they love is important."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.
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