Editorial: In jail and learning from The Bard

  • Back left, Ervin talks with Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College who is teaching a class on Shakespeare at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. Front, Mike and Sophie examine the  text. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/2/2018 9:32:35 PM

In August 2016, The Boston Globe Magazine published a profile of a beloved Pioneer Valley figure, Robert J. Garvey, with the headline: “Bob Garvey just might be the best sheriff in the nation.”

As the head of The Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction for 32 years, Garvey accomplished many feats: He played a crucial part in building the new county jail in 1985, but just as critical was the role he played in helping inmates rebuild their lives — through education. It’s a legacy that’s being honored under the current head of the jail, Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane.

In 2005, Sheriff Garvey joined forces with the then-president of Amherst College, Anthony Marx, to offer college classes at the House of Correction. Part of the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, based at Temple University in Philadelphia, the Amherst College Inside-Out Program aims to give inmates a chance to earn college credit and to let visiting college students learn alongside inmates in a different kind of classroom setting — behind bars.

As Steve Pfarrer reported recently in Hampshire Life, the class is conducted in an egalitarian spirit, with all of the students sitting together in a big meeting room. Only first names are used, and the scholars are not called inmates or college students but rather “inside students” and “outside students.”

It’s a program that’s still going strong. On the afternoon Pfarrer visited, the class of about two dozen was engaged in a conversation led by Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans about Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a character with whom some of the inmates, in particular, identified. As one man put it: “I feel the same way Macbeth felt.” He could see himself in the tragic character, he said, and in the story of how “one thing in your life can be the seed of your destruction.”

In addition to “Macbeth,” the class is reading “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” also being taught by Stavans (who regularly teaches Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at the college). All students are expected to memorize and recite sections of the plays or Shakespearean sonnets, and at the end of the semester, they will perform scenes from the three plays in a show for the entire jail. As Stavans explained, he has the same high expectations for every student in the class: “I expect inside students to write extraordinary papers, and I want them to get the sense that they are as worthy readers of Shakespeare as anyone else.”

Located off Route 66 two miles northwest of the center of Northampton, the county’s House of Correction is one of the more progressive jails in the country, perhaps unsurprising as it’s situated in one of the more progressive parts of the country. In addition to basic education and GED classes, other programs include art history, English as a Second Language, budgeting and Fathers Read Aloud, according to the jail’s website.

An Amherst native, Garvey was a math and science teacher earlier in his career and put a strong emphasis on both basic literacy and cultural literacy, developing a range of educational programs, such as its partnership with Amherst College and its collaboration with the Young@Heart chorus.

The latter was the subject of an article by Emily Cutts in the Arts & Culture section of the Gazette last year about inmates and senior citizens singing side by side. At the time, one of the seniors observed: “Most of them have had a challenge and got off track, but haven’t we all had challenges?”

Her comment speaks to one of the most valuable aspects of such programs: the cultivation of empathy.

The Inside-Out program is exclusive in that it’s designed for inmates and college students. But we can all learn something from a program that prioritizes educational enrichment and inclusivity.

And, of course, we all can learn from The Bard himself, who knew something of dramatic arcs and man’s capacity to shift and change. As Ophelia brilliantly (or madly) observed in “Hamlet”: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

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