MUSKEGON, Mich. — Some inmates at a state prison in Muskegon are spending some of their time memorizing lines, rehearsing their roles and practicing their performances. 

They are actors in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility. According to the founder, the program uses the power of the arts to help awaken the goodness that lives in everyone.

“We work on taking responsibility for our crimes,” said Shakespeare Behind Bars founder Curt L. Tofteland.

“I was the artistic director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and I became interested in doing artistic work with marginalized communities. I enjoyed being in prison and working with that population so much I stayed.”

Wednesday night the cast at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility performed Hamlet Act 1 for a small audience of invited guests. They received a standing ovation.

“It is fantastic,” said Ellyn Purnell. “It is great to see all of the work these guys are doing.”

Shakespeare Behind Bars began 25 years ago in a Kentucky prison. Tofteland opened a chapter at the Earnest C. Brooks facility in 2011.

“It has worked out pretty well,” Tofteland said. “This is our 25th anniversary and our recidivism rate - meaning you get out, commit a crime and are sent back to prison - is six percent over 25 years.”

“It has made me a better human being in every sense of the word," said prisoner and performer Gregory Winfrey. “I put Shakespeare second to Jesus Christ in my life. I always say where everything else failed me the arts found me. Showed me how to love myself, live better and be better.”

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