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Shakespeare goes behind prison bars

(BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

Jean Trounstine spent a decade in prison.

An English professor for the past 18 years at Middlesex Community College in Lowell , Trounstine committed no crime; she developed a theater program at MCI-Framingham , the state's only long-term lockup for women.

It was one of several literary endeavors that have filled her life and those of others in the last two decades -- efforts in which she has explored the value of theater and literature in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders, written about her experience with breast cancer, and gathered essays from women writers on marriage and life.

At the prison in the 1980s and '90s, Trounstine directed productions such as "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The Merchant of Venice," and adaptations that included "The Scarlet Letter." The work was the basis of her book, "Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women's Prison," published in 2001.

The plays, said the Tewksbury resident, were an outgrowth of an inmate's wish.

"I think my goal early on was to give people a chance to express the feelings that they have in a place like prison through the medium of theater," said Trounstine. "Someone else's words can be both very safe and very liberating at the same time."

The plays took between three and six months to produce -- a large commitment for the many women who had never completed anything in their lives, Trounstine said.

"Just being on stage and having somebody clap for you is a great thing," she said. "There's so much negativity to overcome from their lives and from the prison environment."

Among the inmates she worked with was a woman found guilty of killing her baby and one who set a person on fire. "Other crimes involved drugs and embezzlement, but none of this was important to me," said Trounstine. "My job was not to judge them. My job was to teach them."

The opportunity arose in 1986 while Trounstine was teaching English at Duxbury High School . A friend had been offered a job to teach a college-level course at MCI Framingham but was too busy. She knew Trounstine had experience working with disturbed teenagers at Concord Assabet in Concord , where she'd spent two years, and passed along the offer.

"Teaching college seemed to have a little prestige," said Trounstine. "It didn't really matter that I was working in prison. I just thought of it as sort of an adventure."

Trounstine said her first day on the job was chilling. "They told me not to touch anyone and don't take any gifts," she said. Then began the search. Trounstine said the guards put their hands in her hair, went up and down her body, and opened her mouth to check under her tongue.

"That began my journey and basically changed my life," said Trounstine. Within a short period of time, she saw the women take an interest in literature and express gratitude and self-worth. One woman told Trounstine that she was surprised at being able to understand Shakespeare. Another wrote her a note that said, "Thank you for giving me the chance to be somebody else, even if just for a day."

Trounstine said she never felt threatened and that no one was ever disrespectful. They were appreciative of getting an education.

During the time that she was writing her book about the prison theater program, she became involved with an effort that uses literature to bring together people on probation and the judges who sentenced them. The program, still popular today, is a book group called Changing Lives Through Literature. It was co founded in 1991 by Robert Waxler, a professor from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. In 1992, Trounstine brought the book-group program to Middlesex Community College in Lowell, where women offenders take part in it. There are now more than 10 book-group programs in Massachusetts and 10 in other parts of the country.

The book discussion groups typically include eight to 10 people on probation, the judge who sentenced them, a probation officer, and a facilitator or professor, such as Trounstine. The group discussions help those participating change the way they look at the world. "Because it's a group discussion, everyone is on equal footing," said Trounstine.

The experience from her 15 years in the book group program has resulted in a collection of short stories called "Changing Lives Through Literature," co-edited by Waxler . The pair also co authored a book that came out in 2006, titled, "Finding a Voice: The Practice of Changing Lives Through Literature."

"She's a wonderful person who has a great sensitivity to the power of the humanities," said Waxler in a phone interview from his Dartmouth home. "She's clearly dedicated to changing the lives of people for the better, and has a wonderful sense of enthusiasm."

In 2000, just as she finished Shakespeare Behind Bars, Trounstine faced a personal challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said she found gallows humor in the fact that her life seemed overly dramatic -- working in a prison, then being diagnosed with cancer.

"I will never be one of those people who says 'Thank you, God, for giving me cancer,' but I do believe that I learned how strong I was from it."

Once again, she used the most powerful tool she knew to her to express her feelings and wrote a book of poems called "Almost Home Free." During a reading in Somerville, she met writer Karen Propp of Cambridge . After chatting over coffee, they were surprised to learn that they were both writing books with the same working title about love and marriage. They decided to collaborate, and together gathered commissioned essays from writers, including Julia Alvarez and Erica Jong .

Propp worked with Trounstine for 18 months on their book, "Why I'm Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes," released last year. From prison to cancer to marriage, Trounstine said that all of the work she tackles has a political bent to it.

"It may not be consciously political," she said, "but it's about changing the way we look at something."

For more on Jean Trounstine, visit academic.middlesex.mass.edu/jeantrounstine.

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