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Meet The Women Inmates Of Decatur’s “Shakespeare Corrected”

Millikin University Professor Alex Miller instructs women from the Decatur Correctional Center in a scene from Macbeth.

Millikin University Professor Alex Miller instructs women from the Decatur Correctional Center in a scene from Macbeth. (Jeff Bossert/WILL)

For people who do theater in their spare time, it’s often about showing off talent, and getting some applause.  But for a group of women in Decatur, it’s also about finding abilities they didn’t know they had.

These particular women are inmates at the Decatur Correctional Center.

It’s an evening in late January - and the women are in a prison classroom, reading scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Macbeth goes up late next month.  And for Director Alex Miller, these first classes are a time to cast the show - and for his actors to gain an understanding of the play.

"It’s playful poetry," Miller told his class.  "And you have to paint the picture as if you’re speaking to blind five year old. That’s how clearly you have to paint the picture.  When you read bedtime stories, you engage in the language."

One of the inmates here on this evening is Teresa Wright, whose troubles with the law go back more than 20 years.   She has a little less than two years to serve on a residential burglary conviction.   

Teresa has worked on past Shakespeare Corrected productions, including last year’s performance of Taming of the Shrew.  Wright said her involvement in the program has effected how she reaches out to others.

“I mean, that matters," she said.  "If I communicate with Veronica in a negative way, she’s going to respond to me in a negative way.  It’s about learning to better myself – for self-improvement.  I don’t want to go out of here the same way I came in here.”

Veronica -  is fellow inmate Veronica Reyes, who’s in prison for her role in an armed robbery. 

She’s been involved in all four Shakespeare Corrected productions since the program started, including playing Desdemona, the female lead in Othello. Reyes said the program has changed her for the better, and she sees it doing the same for her fellow inmates.

“I really enjoy helping people – and to see it through, and to see something positive being built behind these walls is just amazing," she said.  "Because there’s a lot of negativity here.  And just to be able to be part of something so positive, and to watch the ladies grow as they do this is just very rewarding.”

(pictured - Decatur Correctional Inmates Teresa Wright (L), Dawn Green, and Cora Hines rehearse a scene from Macbeth.)

Director Alex Miller is a Theatre Professor at Millikin University in Decatur. He said last year’s inmate production of a comedy, Taming of the Shrew, was a nice escape for the women. 

But he said this play, Macbeth – a tragedy in which a Scottish general conspires to murder a king and take his crown - hits closer to home.

“There’s no substitute for doing something that connects so directly to the situations they’ve found themselves in," Miller said.  "And the ladies understand they’re telling a cautionary tale to the other ladies that come see them.”

Miller said he was inspired to bring ‘Shakespeare Corrected’ to these Decatur inmates after seeing a TV report about a similar program for violent offenders, at a Supermax Prison in Indiana.   

Then he visited a Kentucky prison with its own Shakespeare program, and that provided the last piece of incentive.

Miller says nearly every inmate who has participated in the program in Decatur has signed up to do it again. 

And he said there’s a reason they’re reading and performing scripts written by Shakespeare, and not something simpler.  He said words can change the world, and there’s not a better wordsmith than The Bard.

“It’s also incredibly empowering for them to do something that initially, they didn’t think they could do," he said.   "And to my knowledge, there’s not an individual who can encompass a situation, an emotion, a relationship the way Shakespeare can.  The big quote that we’re talking about this year is - ‘the instruments of darkness tell us truths.  Win us with honest trifles to betray’s, in deepest consequence.’  And so many of those offenders immediately connect to the idea of participating in a crime because the initial idea did not seem evil.”

(Pictured - Veronica Reyes (L), and other women in the Decatur Correctional Center meet in class with "Shakespeare Corrected" professor Alex Miller.)

"Alex is awesome," said Cora Hines - who, like many of the women in the prison, had never been on stage before.

“You know, you can ask him a question as far trying to get into your part, if you don’t understand it, he’ll give you understanding of it," he said.  "And it was easier to get into character then.”

Like many first-time performers, Cora, who’s serving time for substance abuse, said she was shy, and thought she’d be a stagehand.  But through performances of Shakespeare, she conquered that fear.

“And I stuck with it… and that was the other thing that I was proud of myself about," said Hines.  "I stuck with it.  I didn’t let it deter me, I didn’t get out because I didn’t understand.  I stuck with it, and I’m proud of myself for that.”

For Alex Miller, the Shakespeare Corrected program can teach the inmates things about themselves that can help them after they’re released.

"I preface every show by saying 'you're about to see something that shouldn't exist," he said.  "These ladies are living proof of this.  I think that they find confidence in doing something they never thought they could do.  Especially the ladies who come by the second time - oh, they pick it up so quick.  They really do begin to gain a confidence in their ability to do things they initally do not believe they can do."

The inmates we talked to all have hopes for life after prison.

Cora Hines said she hopes to land a job as a secretary or in social work. Veronica Reyes hopes to return to her old job as a paralegal.  

And Teresa Wright wants to be a substance abuse counselor, working with adolescents.  

“Because I feel that if somebody care about them enough to intervene, when they’re having problems – when they’re at that age- I can prevent them from being in here, like me," she said.  "This is my fifth time here – I’m 45 years old -  I wish I had someone to intervene on my behalf.”

But first, there’s a show to put on – with Teresa in the lead role.   Cora Hines has been cast as the Old Man, and Veronica Reyes will play dual roles - that of Sergeant, and stage manager.

Performances of Macbeth before an audience of fellow inmates, their families, and prison staff are set for late April. 

Illinois Public Media plans on returning to Decatur next month to report on the performance.