Belmont professor Dr. Jayme Yeo spent five weeks during the summer teaching Shakespeare to inmates on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tenn.
Yeo studies early modern literature and is a Shakespearean.
“I had heard about this phenomenon through some research I was doing about The Tempest. So I decided to teach a class called Murderers, Madmen and MacBeth, which was elite cohort paired with Sociology 101,” Yeo said. “And in the class I wanted to investigate what it was about Shakespeare that made him so interesting to inmates.”
Yeo invited scholar Laura Bates and some colleagues to her class. She noted that it wasn’t by choice to teach inmates on death row.
“I met a couple of colleagues at Watkins School of Art and Design who have been doing a class called Art and Philosophy at Riverbend Maximum in the Death Row unit, which is unit two,” Yeo said.
The colleagues are Tom Williams and Robin Paris, who also volunteer with inmates.
“Tom and Robin very graciously invited me to go and give a series of kind of guest sessions in Riverbend.That’s how I wound up working with them,” Yeo said.
Before working with the inmates, there are a few requirements that volunteers must abide by. They must be approved by the warden and put on the memo, go through security like at an airport and not form close relationships with the inmates.
Yeo worked with the inmates who have been on death row for awhile.
“That particular unit is unusually calm and supportive. The guys on death row have known each other for a long time. They tend not to transfer, so they had developed a kind of culture of trust among them,” Yeo said.
Yeo noted her class had a relaxed structure. She would give a Shakespeare speech, and the inmates would create an art piece with the help of art professors.
“We had five weeks, and I decided to do a speech for five weeks. One of the questions I had going in was how people in prison tended to think about questions that Shakespeare is really interested in. He’s interested in justice and inequality,” Yeo said. “I chose some speeches that had to do with justice and inequality, just to see what the prisoners thought. I just wanted to get their opinions.”
She researched the inmates she was working with, and they statistically come from a lower economic situation, don’t have much education and were usually victims themselves.
“But what I couldn’t know was their own individual stories, so the way my perspective changed is they became more human,” Yeo said. “I started learning about them as individuals, kind of what they thought about and what they wanted out of life, what influenced them in the past, so they stopped being statistics and started being people.”
Yeo believes that the prison system needs to help out inmates.
“The people on death row are there because they’ve done terrible things, but just because they’re there doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reach out to them,” Yeo said. “I guess I learned that people are valuable, not because of the good things they do, but in spite of the bad things they do.”
After her experience, she also believes that the prison system needs to be drastically changed.
“I don’t think prisons are doing a really good job of addressing the problem behind crime. Prisons just take people out of society, they dehumanize them, and they institutionalize them. They don’t teach them how to relate to society in a way that’s healthful and productive,” Yeo said. “The other lesson I learned from this experience is that if our prisons are going to be effective, we probably need to radically rethink what we’re doing in them.”
This article was written by Katelyn Foehner.