Shakespeare Saved My Life:
Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard

by Laura Bates

While He Was Breaking Out of Prison, She Was Trying to Break In.

Shakespeare professor and prison volunteer Laura Bates thought she had seen it all. That is, until she decided to teach Shakespeare in a place the bard had never been before — supermax solitary confinement. In this unwelcoming place, surrounded by inmates known as the worst of the worst, is Larry Newton. A convicted murderer with several escape attempts under his belt and a brilliantly agile mind on his shoulders, Larry was trying to break out of prison at the same time Laura was fighting to get her program started behind bars.

Thus begins the most unlikely of friendships, one bonded by Shakespeare and lasting years—a friendship that, in the end, would save more than one life.

“A powerful testament to how Shakespeare continues to speak to contemporary readers in all sorts of circumstances.” Booklist

“The work that Laura Bates has been doing for years with prison inmates and Shakespeare is of extraordinary importance. It has a kind of beauty and symmetry all its own.” David Bevington, Shakespeare scholar, University of Chicago

“An eye-opening study reiterating the perennial power of books, self-discipline, and the Bard of Avon” Kirkus

Get the eBook

March 17 – 31, 2015

Meet Laura Bates

Laura Bates has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Comparative Literature, with a focus on Shakespeare studies. She is Professor of English at Indiana State University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on Shakespeare. For more than twenty-five years she has also taught in prison. She created the world’s first Shakespeare program in supermax—the long-term solitary confinement unit.  Her work has been featured in local and national media, including two segments on MSNBC-TV’s Lock Up. She is the author of “Shakespeare Saved My Life:” Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard (Sourcebooks, 2013).

Follow Laura

facebook-icon     goodreads-icon     twitter-icon

Finished with the Big Library Read selection? Check out these “what to read next” selections from Sourcebooks!

What is Big Library Read?

Join the fun!  Big Library Read is the first-ever “global eBook club,” connecting readers around the world who read the same eBook at the same time. Over the past year, thousands of libraries and schools and millions of patrons have embraced the program. Here’s how it works:  Program sponsor OverDrive teams with a noted eBook publisher to make a popular eBook available to public libraries and schools for lending.

During the two-week program, the Big Library Read title is available for checkout through participating libraries and schools.  It’s free, and there’s never a waiting list during the program. All you need is a library card (or student ID) to join the global eBook club.  See above for program dates and title details, and add a comment below to join the online community all about Big Library Read!

Discussion Question 1: Do you think that Larry, who came to prison at 17, should spend the rest of his life behind bars?

Discussion Question 2: Do you feel Larry’s solitary confinement from age 10 was appropriate? What are your thoughts on solitary confinement for juveniles?

Discussion Question 3: Is it possible for a prisoner to be rehabilitated from their crimes and return to society? Do you think Larry is rehabilitated?

Discussion Question 4: What lessons do you think Larry learned from Dr. Bates? Do you believe he was a good teacher in prison and could he be a good teacher in society?

Discussion Question 5: If you could ask the author any question, what would you ask?

Discussion Question 6: Would you be supportive of a significant other doing the kind of work that Dr. Bates does?

Comments 243

  1. Kathie

    I have just finished this book and have found it to be one of the most thought provoking books I have read for some time.

    The horrendous nature of the crimes committed is reflected in the treatment received by the prisoners. This is a vicious circle – violence breeds violence. People are no longer regarded as people but dehumanised and, if they are no longer seen as a person violence can be meted out to them without any feelings of guilt.

    I was shocked by the solitary confinement for children as described in the book. Children may well require to be separated from others but the environment in which this was done was appalling.

    I find it difficult to accept the state taking a life. However, I believe that there are some people who are so dangerous that they should never be released from prison.

    I do believe in rehabilitation, but feel that not all people can be rehabilitated. There have been success stories in countries other than the US with special units being set up for extremely violent prisoners. These prisoners through education have found talents they did not realise they had and some were able to become writers or obtain degrees. Their backgrounds were similar to those of Larry. The project in which Larry was involved would seem to be less expensive than setting up such a unit. This project also gave insight into why the crimes were committed. The work done with young people who were likely to end up in prison was also very positive aspect.

    I would commend the author on the way in which this book was written. It was easy to read. I would certainly recommend this book to others.

    I certainly would be interested in reading another book in the Big Library Read!

  2. Lori Walton

    1. Mr Newton didn’ just “come to prison at age 17”, he killed a young man in a premeditated muder. My sympathy lies with there victim and his family. That said, I don,t think LWOP is appropriate for juveniles, but the sentence may justly be very, very long.

    2. I do think prolonged or arbitrary solitary confinement is cruel, is inappropriate for juvenile prisoners, and possibly for adults. Yet, used properly, it can also be an effective tool for disciplining inmates who violate rules, who injure other inmates or guards. Make no mistake, not all inmates are, or become, as well-behaved as Mr Newton. If you don’t like solitary confinement or isolation as a disciplinary tool, what methods to do you propose for maintining some order amongst often-violent prisoners?

    3. I have no idea if Mr Newton is rehabilitated, and neither does Dr Bates. He certainly did contribute a great deal to others, especially juvenile prisoners, and I do thnk he would have made a a good teacher, in prison, and out. But once released, with a less controlled environment, I couldn’t predicthow Mr Newton might react to various challenges and events.

    1. Rhonda Couey Brisson

      Q1 Based on my reading it seems that the sentences for other juvenile offenders were much shorter. Those in the book had opportunities for paroles. in the county in which I live there have been manager panels who have committed horrible crimes, many of them have been given very long sentences. Knowing their crimes, I can say I question how safe we will be upon their release. I do think that they should and Larry should have an opportunity for parole.

      Q2 Solitary confinement for any person should be used if the person faces danger or is a threat to others. However, the dangers and threats should be assessed frequently to determine changes in levels of concern. I think if one must be confined alone, a period should be very short. Those in such confinement should be provided with assistance such as counseling when plausi

      Q 3 – prisoners can be rehabilitated. I know people who have served time in person AL institutions. These people have turned themselves around and are active positive members of society. It appears Larry has found help. I believe he deserves the opportunity to return to society.


  3. Mary

    What a book. I was skeptical when I first started reading, but this book changed me. It made me look at my limiting beliefs and my personal judgements of those in prison. Simply for that reason, Larry’s footprint has an extended reach.

    1. I do not feel Larry should spend the rest of his life in jail. I felt the punishment with no opportunity for appeal was too harsh at the beginning of the book. He was only 17, a child who did not know love, understanding, or have a positive influence in his life. I do believe he needed to be held accountable for the crime of murder. He has paid that debt. Before reading, I would not have answered this way.

    2. The solitary confinement story at the age of 10 brought me to tears. I suppose the system was trying to scare Larry straight. I have a son. I couldn’t imagine him in 5 years experincing what Larry experienced at 10. I think it would either break him psychologically or create a burn of hatred for authority that cannot be put out. Neither of these seems like an appropriate rehabilitation technique, to me. But, what is the best solution? I. Don’t. Know. Perhaps Larry has a better answer, having survived it, than any politician or administrator could offer.

    3. Rehabilitation is a difficult one. I do believe Larry could be rehabilitated and probably is at this point. But, would I want a criminal living next to me? That’s what it really means. Someone who has committed murder or a violent crime? It would be difficult for me to trust their rehabilitation. I would in time, but it would take me some time to see their behaviors to truly find them rehabilitated.

    I really enjoyed and found this book and the ideas discussed applicable to all of our lives. We all have prisons. We all have fears. We all can find joy and happiness within ourselves even though we aren’t perfect. Thank you for sharing this memoir!

  4. Donna Irvin

    I loved this book. I was not excited to read it at all but ended up being obsessed with finishing it. You do not have to be a fan of Shakespeare to get a lot out of this book. LOVED IT!!

  5. Beth Horton

    1.) What is the “value” of another person’s life? Some societies developed a blood price to paid by the killer to the victim’s family to remove any guilt. I have long wondered why it is OK for society to kill the killer. Doesn’t that make us just as guilty? Presently, with the lethal drug cocktail used in executions unavailable we, society, have been forced to stop killing. I wonder if we will just keep it that way.
    As a 17 year old killer, what are the choices open to us visa vie Larry Newton? Seems we can take away his liberty by putting him in jail for a long,long time or we can do to him what he did. (Timely topic with the Boston Marathon trial going on.) Could we see our way to putting him into therapy so that he can take a different life? But our tradition says he needs to atone for his actions so how could he do that in a meaningful way? For a kid living on the streets because that is better than living at home maybe going to jail is the better option but the Larry keeps striking out at the people around him and striking out within the rules of the system to the point where he ends up in a deeply monastic life. This is where he differs from many people because he uses the solitary to explore himself. If it were me I’d rather be in jail than be on death row. But I’m no longer 17.

    Should a 17 year old be sent to prison for killing?
    Does being 17 make you different from the 18 year old who goes into the Army and learns how to kill in the military style?

  6. Susanna C

    Discussion Q 1: Should Larry spend the rest of his life behind bars? What is the purpose of lifelong incarceration? I suggest there are two: to segregate dangerous individuals from the rest of society for our communal safety, and as the consequence of taking another human life. I exclude the goal of “retribution” or vengeance for the victim because this is not a role that the rule of law should be adopting. If we as a society are incarcerating prisoners as a way of exacting vengeance on behalf of victims, we should also be considering vengeance killings by family members of victims acceptable, which we do not (in the eyes of the law, at least). Larry no longer seems dangerous to the community. The remaining question, therefore, is whether he should remain incarcerated simply because that is the penalty for taking away another person’s freedom to live. Such a discussion does not hinge on whether he “deserves” to be released, but on what value we as a society set on mercy (defined as the withholding of a deserved penalty).

    Discussion Q2: Following on from the above discussion, we then need to consider what prison conditions ought to be like. If we are not exacting vengeance, then solitary confinement (whether of adults or juveniles) should not be for the purpose of making people suffer, but for making them think (or calm down enough in order to begin to think). What is the goal of solitary confinement? Having defined those goals, what will best achieve them? Shutting people in cages in which one would not house a rabid dog certainly doesn’t seem to answer.

    Discussion Q 4: Larry is clearly a gifted and intelligent teacher who has invested time and spirit in his learning and teaching. I certainly agree that he should be allowed to teach, both within and without the prison community. In this century, though, that is a separate issue from whether he himself should be within or without the prison community. That said, I would look for ways to liberalize the environment within prison for prisoners who demonstrate insight and responsibility for their past actions.

    Moderator: this is a wonderful book club idea, and I am looking forward to both more discussions and more books, but can you please look into better organization for the comments; maybe a forum style rather than webpage comments? And I would appreciate it people could “like” or “pin” their approval rather than adding to the comments so that we can find the actual discussions instead of “yay”. Thanks!

    1. Amanuensa

      I am appalled and disheartened by this narrative. The prison inhumanity is so widespread and casual that I wonder who the monsters are: the prisoners, the guards or those who make the rules and punishments. Certainly, Larry is closer to a martyr than a monster. I believe that harsh treatment of inmates has a negative effect on control and certainly does nothing to alter their anti social behaviour.

  7. Oxnardprof

    I enjoyed the book. Nit provides a compelling narrative that brings out the humanity in a person that many will not consider a positive part of society. The fact that MR. Newton found such insight in Shakespeare should be a lesson to all readers of those works. There is much to learn about oneself in reading even a 400 year old book.

    I think Mr. Newton should not we’ve life without parole. The sentence was arbitrary, and he was pushed to make life and death decisions at an age and development that clearly meant he could not responsible Make those decisions. Remember cent studies suggest that criminal behaviour is for the most part a young man’s game, that older men are less likely to return to a life of crime. Of course some support is needed for prisoners to make the transition to freedom.

    Solitary confinement should be understood as a form of torture, and clearly is inappropriate for a child.

    Suggestion for the design of this page: move the comment box to the top of the page, closer to the questions. It is a challenge to switch between the top and bottom of the Web page. I enjoyed this read and look forward to the next. I am not sure what you can do about it, but the short affirmations that forms the majority of comments make back and forth discussions difficult. This is probably the nature of the beast.

  8. Sue G

    Doesn’t it make sense that if prisoners could be rehabilitated through education and be returned to society that this would be a much better use of taxpayers’ money than the expense of simply incarcerating them? In the long term, it could/should save the taxpayers’ money because there is a good possibility that an educated prisoner wouldn’t be incarcerated as long and could become contributing members of society.

    My husband says this would never happen because of the large amount of people making money through incarcerations. I would like to think that people reading and sharing books such as this could eventually make a difference in our criminal system’s techniques.

    I am planning to purchase this book in order to share it as it has really changed my perspective, and I hope it will do so for many others.

    1. Charlotte

      I don’t know about in your state, but where I live, there *are* educational services involved in incarceration. By and large, the inmates shrug them off, but they are available. I know because I have been personally involved in the process.

      It does not make sense for you to talk about how expensive incarceration is in one breath and then claim people are making a large amount of money from it in the next. Be wary of making accusations (or quoting them from other people) when you lack the information behind them. No one is getting rich off of the prison system. However, I think you would be surprised at how many people are bending over backwards to live out the philosophy that there is no such thing as last chances for redemption.

  9. CapeCarol

    Just finished the book. Enjoyed Dr Bates writing style and the subject. I worked in a maximum security prison as a social worker so I understood the environment.
    My first reaction to the book was I felt very mixed emotions about Larry and where the story left him. All I could think was the comment the Fox makes in “The Little Prince”, Now that you have tamed me, you are responsible for me”.

    1. Susanna C

      I agree about the fox. Is Dr. Bates prepared to pave the way for Larry to find housing, employment, support people, etc. upon release?

    1. Post
      1. IDPOTS

        Am a wanting to know if this is a local group out of the CDA/CIN library? Also, is there any way to set up discussion threads per question. I’m finding it difficulty to focus on the discussion as it is disjointed.

  10. Laurie S.

    WOW! I finished this book yesterday morning and am still trying to take it in all the parts of these interesting and real people. I was in awe of the dedication and conviction with which both Laura Bates and Larry Newton approached Shakespeare’s plays and how these plays could bring self realization and understanding not only to themselves but to other prisoners. I could feel Larry Newton’s hunger for learning and for his desire to understand himself and how he ended up in the prison system. He also wanted to help other prisoners learn and begin to evaluate their lives also.

    Question 1: Larry Newton did kill another man, was sentenced to life in prison, and still belongs there. The killing done without remorse and the reason that the murder was committed was as a way of impressing his “street family”. I am not saying that his early life as a child was not only horrendous and that he was living on the streets, but I am saying that, even though he was only 17, he exhibited no signs of taking any kind of responsibility for his behavior.

    Question 2: All I have in response to this is that the system is broken. Solitary confinement for a ten year old is way too far out of my understanding for me to even comment on although I guess I just made a comment.

    Question 3: I would like to believe in rehabilitation. I think that it depends on the type of crime, the number of times and length of times a person has been incarcerated, and if the person is able to understand the ‘whys’ of the reason that they commit a crime. Although Larry has come so far in educating and understanding himself through his journey of Shakespeare’s plays, I really cannot see him as rehabilitated in the truest sense of the word. The emotional and physical trauma that he went through in his early life, and the fact that most of his life has been spent in prison, makes it seem to me to be insurmountable by any prisoner including Larry.

    1. Keith Thompson

      I suspect that Larry is a very exceptional prisoner, but Bates holds him up as an example. I suspect his level of intelligence is far superior to that of many of his peers. In spite of all of the horrible things that occurred during his childhood, I suspect he also experienced some genuine caring, if not love. In my opinion his empathy for others and his level of intelligence would enable him to “make it” on the outside. Perhaps Bates is saying “but all prisoners have some degree of empathy and intelligence…..not to the degree of Larry, but they have some.” What opportunities should they have while in prison? What are the chances of them “making it” on the outside?

  11. Nakayima

    I could not put this book down! Very thought provoking and inspiring.

    I don’t agree with the prison systems here in the U.S. The conditions at juvenile detention centers are terrible. They create criminals not rehabilitate youth. I don’t believe a juvenile, a teenager, basically a child should get life behind bars. I don’t agree with zero tolerance policies for youth either. Every moment is a teachable moment and children deserve second chances because no one is perfect.

    I truly believe in rehabilitation and I think Larry has been rehabilitated. And I agree with Larry that we do become our labels. If a majority of those imprisoned were given the chance to re-label themselves, I think they would have a better chance to succeed in and out of prison.

    1. Keith Thompson

      From what I’ve heard (and read) I agree that our system if seriously flawed. We should seriously rethink that statement “it take a village to raise a child” and rethink the kinds of support we provide for children. If we could find ways to provide better support (and I do not mean just $$$$) for schools, for youth programs, mental health counselors and probably some kinds of support we have not even “discovered”, there would be far fewer Larrys with which to be concerned.

    2. Cynthia Eisler

      I’m so glad to read from someone who agrees with me. I also believe that there are people born into the world who do not fit into “society” that the majority define. What can they do? Where do they fit? There should be more understanding for ALL people and the chance to learn more about humanity.

  12. Janice

    The option of the book title on audio for those of us who are unable to read ebooks would allow us to participate in The Big Read.

    1. Post
  13. Dolly

    Discussion Question 2: NO! Children should NOT be subjected to solitary confinement…… Maybe, no one of any age should. It sounds more like torture…..I can barely imagine the mental & physical stress ……

  14. Jo van Vugt

    This is not the type of book that I typically read, but the description sounded interesting as I am an educator and very passionate about reading and writing. I am very anxious to start.

  15. Tasha Allen

    I was intrigued by the sudden appearance of this book in my library’s digital site. So I downloaded it and read it while I was home sick with a sore throat. What an interesting story! I don’t usually choose non-fiction, but I teach English lit to teenagers (including Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and Taming of the Shrew) so the idea of teaching Shakespeare in prison definitely caught my attention. I most enjoyed the insights of the prisoners and the connections they make with the characters in the plays. The thought that these men could read the plays, as Bates says, with no footnotes, fascinates me. For the most part, my teenaged students resist reading their Shakespeare without a heavy reliance on Google. A good read. And a good idea. I’ll be watching for the next big library read for sure!

    1. Bonnie

      Tasha – has reading this book changed the way you teach? When you said your teenagers resist Shakespeare without Google, I couldn’t help but think of the tattooed boy in Ch. 52 when the voice on the video made him turn around. I’m just wondering if you’ll come at the subject from a different angle now.

    1. Isa

      A question posed in the discussion section: do you believe prisoners can be rehabilitated? This book, in and of itself certainly supports the positive impact that good programs can have in rehabilitating prisoners and prison systems. I firmly believe that some, not all, can. The problem lies in the individual prisoner and what motivated him/her. I don’t think that all prisoners are innately bad; some may in fact be the product of their environment as depicted in this book. There are those though, that for unexplained reasons seem to have a propensity for committing heinous acts. I refer to the sociopath, the criminally insane or psychopathic killer. Short of over medicating, there seems to be little that can be done to satiate the hunger and drive that leads these individuals to commit such wrongs. The biography or story of Larry Newton shows that there is a possibility for rehabilitation. It is not clear what exactly his role was in the actual assault or murder that cause his incarceration. However, his changes of character are very clear and his acceptance of his life in a prison and helping others is admirable.

  16. MichelleW

    Discussion Question 3: Is it possible for a prisoner to be rehabilitated from their crimes and return to society? Do you think Larry is rehabilitated?

    I believe it is possible for a prisoner to be rehabilitated from their crimes and return to society. A key element to this, as SusannaC discusses, is a focus on restoration. Without preparation on how to live outside of prison (this is separate from the rehabilitation aspect), I think incarcerated individuals will face significant and in some cases perhaps seemingly insurmountable challenges when it comes to the myriad of minutiae in day to day living.

    From how Larry is represented in this book, I think he is on his way to being rehabilitated. It is good that he is confident that he has changed and that he can say categorically “I will never kill again” (Chapter 75). But Bates never reveals to us Larry’s reasoning for his emphatic statement. In fact, we never know whether or not she ever meets with him to discuss his reasoning, even though it is clear that Larry wants such a discussion: “Remind me to answer you again, when we meet face-to-face. This is certainly not the media for it . . . I will explain one day…” (Chapter 75). It seems that Bates presumes she already knows what is in Larry’s mind, because she adds in an aside to the reader that “He didn’t have to explain; it had been my greatest worry during the past weeks” (Chapter 75). She leaves the matter at that, relying on the reader to trust her estimation that the reasons for Larry’s certitude would be worthy ones.

    Further evidence of his continued rehabilitation is Larry’s recognition of ways in which he has changed and the details he provides on them them. One of the biggest changes that he identifies is that he has let go, or is in the process of letting go, of the ego that resulted in him engaging in certain behaviours due to extrinsic motivation, ie peer pressure. It appears though that his extrinsic motivator may have transferred, from the criminal element that previously held it to Bates herself. He writes: “I really am a different creature, even in my life away from you” (Chapter 75).

    He identifies his rehabilitation as being related to Bates. On the positive side, he also identifies that he has begun to internalize his changes, making them a part of his character because he desires it for himself, not to in some way please/placate Bates. It is this last, that for me, shows Larry is on his way to being rehabilitated.

    1. Keith Thompson

      Michelle makes an important distinction between rehabilitation (as it is presumed to occur within a prison) and reclamation to living in the outside world. On several occasions Larry speaks to the importance of peers in his decision-making. If he were to be released from prison and return to the environment in which he previously lived I suspect he would become involved in continued criminal activities. If he could somehow become part of a different peer group, I think chances of “rehabilitation” (becoming a productive member of society) would be fairly good. Unfortunately, I do not think our “system of Justice” nor the norms of our society provide many opportunities for this kind of true “rehabilitation”.

      There is another factor that I think very important here. Larry’s involvement with Shakespeare reveals a rather high level of intelligence; especially considering the fact that he had so little formal education. He knows how to think and how to learn. I suspect that sets him apart from the majority of prisoners. Given the right kind of environment and support, I’d bet on Larry “making it” if he had a chance to live “outside” (but not “on the bricks”).

      1. Bonnie

        Keith – do you really think he would return to the same environment that he left from? That world doesn’t exist anymore after decades in prison. Plus, he’s got this new passion that would lead him into a new direction.
        I understand what you’re saying, and have seen it myself with some acquaintances – they do their time for some infraction, but then go back and start

        1. Bonnie

          sorry – to finish my reply – they go back and start hanging with their old crowd and fall right back into their old patterns.

      2. rachel

        This book made a human being as someone who would normally be represented as a monster.
        Firstly, a minor should not be able to bargain their life away. It appears in the book that he really didn’t understand what life without parole meant. His lawyer did not do him justice.

        Having said that, the conditions of holding people- prisoners but people all the same- is totally inhumane.

        Larry is a person of vast intelligence. I wonder what would have happened to him if he had found a positive role model before turning to the streets and crime.

        Whether he can be released from prison, he could certainly provide service to other prisoners while incarcerated.
        Could he not be found a role my suitable to his intelligence, maybe tutoring other prisoners. In this day of online learning he should be allowed to continue his education on line while in prison. There are free course that Harvard and MIT offer. To my mind that is the best way to redeem himself is to give service to others while in prison. If he could change the course of one person’s life then that would be something.

        The book proved to me that the people society writes off and is willing to spend much $ to incarcerate could be better spent educating people before they turn to crime. Our for profit prison system is deeply flawed.

        I love the big read. Cannot wait for the next one.

  17. Mary S.

    I’m about halfway through this book and loving it! I find the descriptions of prison life very interesting. I am amazed at the depth of Larry’s insights into what prison is and “the prisons we all place ourselves in.”

  18. MichelleW

    Discussion Question 2: Do you feel Larry’s solitary confinement from age 10 was appropriate? What are your thoughts on solitary confinement for juveniles?

    First, to set a context: Larry was not in solitary confinement from age 10 onwards. As he says, upon arriving at juvie, isolation is “where you start at, you do a little time in there when you first come in. At least I did.” (Chapter 15) When Bates asks him “How long are you there?” he replies “I don’t know. Maybe forty-eight hours” (Chapter 15).

    So Larry was not in isolation the entire time he was in juvie, every time he was sent to juvie, but he was always in isolation for at least part of the time, every time.

    The conditions described by Bates when she saw the room that had been used as Larry’s isolation cell during his stay in juvie, were deplorable. This was a room that was never designed to be lived in. It had no emergency exit. It was removed from the rest of the house; in Bates’ estimation “officers would’ve been . . . too far away to hear any cries from the child locked in the storage closet” (Chapter 16). To our knowledge, there were no cameras or other monitoring equipment in the room. That the light was kept off the entire time was an excessively harsh sensory deprivation technique, in my view.

    Any isolation in this room, in my view, would be inappropriate for anyone, juvenile or adult.

    We do not know why Larry was put into isolation immediately whenever he went to juvie. Bates seems to have the impression that it was due to the flagrant disregard of a flawed system, as evidenced by the following passage: [In the former isolation room now children’s toy storage closet] I found a beat-up little teddy bear, propped him up against the brick wall, and took his picture. He looked, I don’t know, scared.” (Chapter 16) Here Bates is anthropomorphizing the bear, projecting onto the stuffed toy a human emotion, presumably the one she expects a child would feel.

    She then goes on to describe scratches in the concrete under the door as made “by what [she] imagined to be desperate little hands” (Chapter 16). Larry never says that he scratched the floor to get out of the room, only that he would listen at the door crack hoping to hear the officers or the other kids (Chapter 15). Therefore this imagining by Bates is just that: an imagining without evidence to back it up. I do not mean to state that the marks were not made by children locked in the room – rather that we do not know how the marks were made. They could have been made by moving furniture in and out of the thrift store storage room.

    Since we only have Bates’ emotional subjective response to the room, and no explanation from Larry as to the circumstances that prefaced him being put into isolation, I cannot say whether or not him being in isolation was inappropriate. I can say that him being in isolation in that particular room in that facility was entirely inappropriate.

    As for solitary confinement for juveniles in generaI, I do not think that it is inherently wrong. I think the “wrong” or more properly the “harmful” aspect of it comes with:
    – conditions of the isolation area
    – monitoring of the isolated juvenile
    – length of time in isolation

    If a young person arrives at a juvenile detention centre and is violent, acting out, striking out, is somehow a danger to the other inmates at the centre, then that person needs to be isolated from the other inmates, for everyone’s safety, for a defined period of time. However, extended isolation of young people is harmful to their mental and emotional well-being. I agree with Terri when she points out below, “Time-outs work because they are short term.” Without defined parameters, the isolation becomes purely a punishment, with an apparent goal of instilling enough fear of being returned to isolation into the individual that, going forward, the individual will obey the rules, whatever they may be.

  19. MichelleW

    Discussion Question 1: Do you think that Larry, who came to prison at 17, should spend the rest of his life behind bars?

    I think this question is somewhat incomplete, as to answer it the reader must first determine the degree to which s/he trusts Bates as writer and narrator of this non-fiction work. Does the reader trust Bates is being honest and complete in her portrayal of Larry? Does the reader trust that Bates would have the perception to determine whether Larry is being duplicitous (e.g. is he still harbouring violence but being able to put on a facade to hopefully win his way out of his lifelong sentence)? Does the reader trust that Bates is being objective in her story telling, and not working towards a personal agenda of some kind?

    Personally, as a reader, I found nothing in the book to indicate to me that either Bates or Larry were untrustworthy. I did try to find external sources to serve as verification of the facts in the book (Bates’ program, etc.) but the only links I easily found were from Bates’ own website. I deliberately did not research much on Larry, as I did not want to bring too much information from outside the book into this discussion. However, the fact that I was not able to easily find corroborating details from sources other than Bates or her website, did leave me reserving judgement as to whether or not, in fact, Bates and/or Larry were trustworthy – even with no evidence in the book itself to the contrary.

    With that in mind, and based on what was related in the book, I do not think that Larry should spend the rest of his life in prison. He can be of much more value to society as an active, contributing participant, by continuing to expand his education and then sharing his knowledge and passion with others, hopefully within the prison system since he would bring a unique and powerful perspective.

    Having said that, his sentence is what it is. He asked for it and he received it. Personally, I do not think Larry , at 17, should have been given the option of waiving his right to an appeal. I think making a 17 year old choose between death and life in prison without the possibility of parole was an immoral action. At 17, he legally could not vote, drink, drive a car on his own, etc. yet he was supposed to be mature enough to decide that any kind of life is better than death.

    I don’t have an opinion the severity of his sentence as compared to other offenders. I am trusting that the judge meted the sentence that s/he deemed appropriate at the time. I just don’t think he should ever have been given a sentence that involved a judgement call that was inappropriate for his age at the time.

    1. MichelleW

      To clarify re: my trusting Bates: without question in my mind, Bates clearly has an agenda (the penal system is not effective in its rehabilitation of offenders, especially young offenders). However, I did not find any strong evidence that she “tampered” with the story she was telling in any significant way, other than tone, to reinforce her agenda.

    1. Veda McLean

      Good afternoon , I hope all is well. I am late to the program, but I am going to read all I can until March 31, 2015. Happy reading everyone. Have a great day.

  20. IDPOTS

    Discussion Question 2: Do you feel Larry’s solitary confinement from age 10 was appropriate? What are your thoughts on solitary confinement for juveniles?

    It strikes me that solitary confinement in Larry’s case is overly punitive and destructive. When someone has done a wrong, they need to be held accountable, and okay, punishment is in order. Never the less, I don’t think a social response (criminal justice system) that has the potential to further deviate an individual is in order.

  21. IDPOTS

    Discussion Question 1: Do you think that Larry, who came to prison at 17, should spend the rest of his life behind bars?

    I’ve finished reading the book, and certainly empathize with Larry and believe he deserves another chance, given the sweep of his psychological development. We now know the human brain does not fully mature until the age of 26 or so and I believe this should be a consideration related to his sentencing and confinement.

    I think the question really is: “Do you believe rehabilitation is possible?” Personally, and related to my life’s work, I believe that people can change, otherwise, what is the point of helping professions? What is the point for any of us trying to change behaviors that are not in our best interest?

    A concern for me is the waste of productivity occurring because of the limitations Larry currently has within the incarceration system. I would have appreciated a bit more information about his current status with the Shakespeare program, but as the book ends, it does not sound like his talents are being used to help others.

    1. MichelleW

      (Hopefully I have not spammed the group – I kept losing my comment form for some reason.)

      I too have finished the book, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. My response to Discussion Question 1 is posted separately, however, I wanted to voice my agreement in particular about this portion of your response:

      “A concern for me is the waste of productivity occurring because of the limitations Larry currently has within the incarceration system. I would have appreciated a bit more information about his current status with the Shakespeare program, but as the book ends, it does not sound like his talents are being used to help others.”

      The story felt unfinished, but I did think that was likely deliberate. The program is interrupted, it is unfinished, especially with the change to funding.

      One item I would have liked to see Bates address re: inmates and post-secondary education: although funding was revoked, may an inmate pay out of pocket to do distance learning? Or is all access cut off, even if the inmate were in a position to pay themselves? If the latter is the case, that would be unfortunate as education is one of the keys to rehabilitation. I think the education should be subsidized at the least for inmates, as part of their rehabilitation – funded by us taxpayers, just as we fund their television, and their laundry, and their meals, and their place to sleep. Prison isn’t pleasant, but ideally its goal is to return the individual to society in an empowered state from which they can participate in and contribute to their community, rather than detracting from it.

      1. IDPOTS

        I agree wholeheartedly. Of course, I would be in favor of spending taxpayer money more on the front end in a preventative fashion if there were evidence-based programs that would deter a kid like Larry from his juvenile path of destruction.

  22. Shannon

    I really enjoyed this book & it has def made me change my mind about educating prisoners.
    1. I think it should be illegal to let a 17 year old sign away all rights to appeal. The only reason he did that was for compassion for his mother’s fear of the death penalty. All of his childhood abuse & neglect were certainly mitigating factors & his sentence was in no way “fair” compared to others who had killed two ppl. The removal of the Shakespeare program & college education were horrible decisions made by Indiana. How could anybody deny their positive effects after seeing the change in these prisoners!?
    2. The solitary confinement of a 10yr old boy was atrocious and would have earned a parent an abuse charge. Of course this poor child made bad choices after his horrible childhood! If somebody like Dr. Bates had only been around in his early life, he might have been a professor instead of a prisoner.

  23. Susanna C

    I just finished the book. Regarding the question of rehabilitation, I think it is important to distinguish between rehabilitation (a change of mindset, perspective and values that informs one’s actions) and societal restoration, which additionally requires psychological adjustment to independent and community living, financial support, dealing with others’ expectations and responses, etc. Currently our penal system addresses rehabilitation minimally (through defunded programs such as college classes for inmates) and restoration almost not at all. Dr. Bates’s exemplary Shakespeare program is a model for rehabilitation, but cannot address restoration, in which we as a society need to be willing to invest in our not only our own safety, but our nobility, to give convicts returning to society a fighting chance to succeed upon release.

    1. MichelleW

      Excellent point re: rehabilitation vs restoration. For this particular book, Larry has never lived a life on his own where he is responsible for making all the decisions and keeping himself on track. Hard as life in prison has been, I would think that challenge would be daunting. Although he seems to have shown signs of rehabilitation, as you say we know of nothing that has been done towards preparing him for restoration. Until that happens, in my view, it would be unwise for him to leave the prison system.

  24. Terri

    Isolating children is a sure way to grow psychopaths. Time-outs work because they are short term, but long term isolation of anyone will just keep them in a loop of depression and not be conducive to growth. This book has really gripped me, I am about halfway and can’t manager to do anything but read it. I do love Shakespeare and have been fortunate enough to see every play performed live. I much prefer seeing the play to reading it but have read all of them as well. I never wanted to study Shakespeare because I didn’t want to over-analyze the plays. The insight that the men in the program bring to just reading the words is so personal and moving. I applaud the author, her mission and her commitment.

  25. Dr Donna Schaeffer

    I’m excited to participate because I travel for business regularly, and can’t join a book club where I live. This virtual book club is just perfect for me.

    Just downloaded “Shakespeare” and read Chapter 1. It’s readable and interesting.

  26. Barbara

    There isnt any book clubs near me and I’m interested to see how this’ll work. The book looks really interesting as well so win-win!

  27. Cynthia Eisler

    I don’t understand Shakespeare and have been haunted all my life by this lack. I’m loving this read as I have been given the key to understanding his writings by people in solitary confinement. I this the way these people are treated is inhumane. It constantly boggles my mind that all this country can do is consider “punishment” for breaking any law and never considering the person doing the crime nor the circumstances that led them to this act. I’m hoping this book shines light on this brutality and makes a difference in our country’s way of treated people; however, I doubt that anyone will do anything about it and no changes will be made. Human beings are the cruelest of all mammals when we are the ones that should have brains and be able to have some understanding and empathy for others. Sorry, next time I’ll try to not rant. Anyway, I would advise EVERYONE to read this book. It is wonderful!

    1. Joan murphy

      Please consider some of the criminal offenses that are committed on a daily basis to the innocent. Rape, murder, terrorism, etc… Are all crimes that have no place among the innocent. Majority of charges are dropped or a deal is brokered to keep them out of prison.

    2. Vanessa

      I agree I think the system is broken. I also think in Larry’s situation justice was never served for him as a child. Not only did his family harm him, but the state did not protect him either. He was seeking a way to belong and he found it with the wrong people. I know children can be violent, but their lives and possible tragidies need to be considered when they are breaking the law. My heart was breaking when I read about his childhood and so wished that there would have been one person that intervened early in his life to push him towards making better choices.

    3. MichelleW

      I agree with Vanessa. I too think the system is broken, however, it is the system we have. I do think it is better than some alternatives, but there so many ways it could be improved upon. For that to happen, first the money must be found. Personally, I would pay higher taxes to subsidize rehabilitation and restoration preparation programs for incarcerated individuals. Would the majority also pay? If not, where then would the funds come from?

  28. Elizabeth

    First let me say that you do not need to like, understand or read Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the tool that led super maximum security inmate, Larry Newton, to find himself. It is a story of healing, of redemption, and freedom from, as Larry so insightfully puts it, “the prisons we all place ourselves in.” It is the story of Dr. Laura Bates who believed in these prisoners. It is a bittersweet story but one that gives Larry a legacy of which he can be proud. Everyone should read this book — Larry gives us all so much food for thought.

  29. janet

    First – please comment with book discussion, not general book club excitement. I though Larry’s treatment by the justice system at such a young age was totally unfair and only added to his problems. He is obviously highly intelligent. Too bad the education system did not recognized his need for a better education at a younger age, and try to help him with a gifted student program instead of only providing an education that did not engage him at all and let him run wild. Then the juvenile justice system only made it worse. While in prison he know his violence would put him in solitary, and it seems like he was actually happier as a loner.

  30. Jeanne

    I just got the book last night and I’m excited, I love to read and I don’t have a book club where I live so this is going to be great!

    1. Teresa

      Same thing for me……no book clubs that I am aware of nearby and I love to read. This is a wonderful concept and I look forward to the conversations to come.

  31. Carol

    Too much fun. I belong to 3 book clubs, participate in One Book San Diego and even joined the public transit’ s read while you ride ebook group. A friend threatened to send me to Readers Anonymous and then gave me a Kindle, go figure.

  32. Vanessa

    Larry has essentially grown up in prison, so I am not sure he would be able to make the transition back into the world. While I try to be optimistic about people in general I do not believe he should leave prison. He not only committed a crime(s) to end up in prison but continued to commit violent crimes while incarcerated. It’s unfortunate because if circumstances had been different he could have been in the authors shoes.

    1. Katie Woodard

      I agree. This man is clearly intelligent and maybe not a bad person, but because of his poor upbringing and bad circumstances, he became a criminal. It is sad, but he committed the crime to end up in prison. I am glad that he has had this opportunity to read, learn and discuss literature. It probably brightens his day and helps him to be less miserable in prison and probAbly helps him become a better person. He is just a better person who has to remain in prison because of his past mistakes. But we all end up as prisoners of some kind due to mistakes and the consequences of them

    2. Joan murphy

      Yes I agree with you. dependent on the situation their roles could have been reversed. But what does it take to make someone turn into a Larry?

      All people do not turn into criminals regardless of their financial situation

  33. Wendy E. Galecki-Polk

    I’ve downloaded the book and begun to read. I am mesmerized by both student and educator-passionate and insightful people. I didn’t realize at the time of my download that this is part of an organized bookclub. It was the middle of a sleepless night and I was looking for something that would be a quick read. This book appeared on the splash-screen. I glanced at it in passing as I then searched for my quick read, noting the title with interest. I read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ when in the third grade. My other had taken away all of my books as a punishment. I was desperate for words on a page to take me away from the horror of my life. My older sister was reading it for school, and I would read it when I was certain I wouldn’t be caught. It was an annotated edition, so I didn’t have to struggle much to understand it. I was hooked! Therefore, I felt compelled to check it out prior to logging off. I haven’t yet cracked my quick read open! Now I will download the study guide and am eager to participate.

    1. Cynthia Eisler

      I loved your e-mail. It makes me anxious to start reading this library book too. I used to read as an escape from an unhappy childhood and that pleasure has stuck with me throughout my life. I’m about to turn 80. I hope you enjoy the book! Cynie

  34. Jia Xin Sun


    It sounds like an awesome idea! Just to confirm, is this the only book on the reading list for now and will there be a discussion on the selected book? Thanks for organizing this.

    1. Post
  35. Maureen Wilson

    What a great idea, the book was amazing, heart-wrenching and thought provoking, made me want to take books to the local prison.

  36. Rita Arnst

    This is my first time to download a Big Library Read book. I also saved the pdf discussion guide. I am assuming we can post comments with reference to the discussion guide, HERE. I’m in the middle of The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, so I probably won’t finish Shakespeare Saved My Life until the end of the month. I hope some of you reading the book right away come back to the discussion board toward the end of the month.

    1. Post
    1. Amy O

      Reading through the comments leads one to think a majority of readers are females, or at least those interested in discussing books are females. Interesting. I hope to address this curiosity later in the discussion.

  37. Mary Baxter

    I have just started it (up to Chapter 6) and it caught my interest immediately. Such a powerful concept (brave woman), and a great follow up book for those who liked Orange is the New Black. Another interesting prison memoir to try is Running the Books: adventures of an accidental prison librarian by Avi Steinberg. People never cease to amaze me and books can “open doors & minds” , on both sides of the cell door! Thank you for a great read.

    1. Post
    1. Post
      Adam Sockel

      Hi Susan- A survey is placed on all of our library partners’ OverDrive websites that enables our end users to vote on 10 different titles provided by publishers so it was chosen by our readers. Thanks!

  38. Jyotsna Hamida

    It’s such a lovely idea. And as a non working mom to three and with no family around, I feel like I am in solitary confinement. Going to get reading now!!!

    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
      Adam Sockel

      Hi Deborah- head to your library’s OverDrive page to borrow the book. We’ll post some discussion questions later this week and next week.

  39. Merrilee

    Count me in. I taught at a medium security prison years ago in Alaska. And I’m a Shakespeare geek, so it looks like I have a few things in common with the author.

    1. Post
  40. GuinR

    Just picked up my Big Library Read ~ Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates really looking forward to reading.

  41. Karen

    I read about the Big Library Read just today, March 17th. I downloaded the book and am already 1/3 of the way through. Fascinating. Thanks so much.

    1. Post
      Adam Sockel

      Hi Mandi- the title (Shakespeare saved my life) is available as part of this program as an eBook but many libraries do have the audiobook format as well.

    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
    1. Post
      Adam Sockel

      Thanks, Mary Anne! Be sure to head to your library’s OverDrive page as the title is now available for check out!

    1. Post
  42. Carolyn

    Will a marketing kit be available for Shakespeare Saved My Life as it was for Anatomy of a Misfit back in October?

    1. Post

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *