The first ever TEDx in an adult prison held its second TEDx on April 21. To tell the story of this uncommon event we’ll hear, first, from our editor Kendra Hovey, attending TEDxMarionCorrectional for the first time. Second, pending approval of the institution, we’ll also hear from Marion inmates, both those involved and those attending. Kendra’s story begins below, but first, a few facts:
- TEDxMarionCorrectional is hosted by the institution (medium security) and held within its walls.
- It was founded by inmates Dan and Wayne, who also curate along with Jo Dee Davis (director of Healing Broken Circles ) and Jordan Edelheit (student and founder of TEDxOhioStateUniversity).
- Both Dan and Wayne were introduced to TED while incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution.
- The inaugural event, A Life Worth Living? (9.16.12), was highlighted at TED 2013 and on the TED blog.
- The curators have been asked to consult on other prison events including the upcoming TEDxSanQuentin (9.20.13).
- The audience at the second event, titled What’s Next?, was split down the middle: 149 inmates (chosen through an application process), 152 outsiders (registered after entering their name on a sign-up form). Outsiders were a mix. Our editor met a college student, a foundation president, a software guy and a yoga instructor. The event is also live streamed throughout the prison so the entire inmate population (approx: 2,500) has the option to watch.
- Inmates are identified by first name only in accordance with rules guarding victims’ rights.
- Any questions for inmates about the event can be left in comments. We will forward to Marion Correctional.
TEDxMarionCorrectional: From Outside In
by Kendra Hovey
The TED format stresses substance over status, yet the TED stage is status, making this meritocratic aspiration a bit harder to pull off. Nonetheless, I like the attempt and it’s why I purposely go into each event knowing as little about each speaker as possible. This should explain why I didn’t think about TEDxMarionCorrectional until the night before, and why even then it was only logistics (can I take in a pen? paper?) and cracking-wise (“last night before I go to prison tomorrow, honey”). But it doesn’t.
When I arrive at the prison the next morning I enter through a small building. With chairs in even rows, a wall of lockers, manned desk, security gate and waiting room, it feels vaguely like a rural airport. After locking up my stuff, I sign-in, get my nametag, complimentary gift—a pen—pass through security and then, with a group of about 20, I’m led across the courtyard into a larger building. Passing in and out of locked enclosures, we walk by the visiting room, a barbershop, small holding cells, a photo display of wardens, and eventually down a narrow hallway and through a set of double doors, spilling us into a large, open room humming with conversation.
I’m barely in when, to my right, an inmate welcomes me, followed by another and another. One says hello, another nods, more smile, many extend a hand; a greeting is followed by an exchange of names and we’re talking, and then that conversation blends into another conversation and another and, just like that, I’m engaged in the most seamless mingling between 300 strangers I have ever encountered.
At one point, Wayne interrupts. The co-founder and co-curator (with fellow inmate Dan) is at the mic to tell us what we are already doing: This is the casual meet-and-greet section of the day, he says. It will last one hour, and at 12:30 sharp the first session will begin. Rules. They are at least one thing TED and prison have in common.
Returning to our conversations, an inmate asks if I’d been inside a prison before. The answer is easy: no. Yet, my head fills with images of prisons, ones I’ve toured or explored, and prisons in movies and TV . . . but had I been in a prison with prisoners? No. But that didn’t stop me from believing I had.
Then he asks, “What were you thinking before you came in?” and I am stumped. Nothing. Because my mind is open, I’d like to say, but my mind is closed—lights out, door locked, closed-for-business closed. If I had let myself think, I realize just then, I might not be here.
TEDxMarionCorrectional is on a Sunday, it’s an hour away, it’s all-day, and when you’re in, you’re in; no coming and going, no cell phones (good lord!), and no outside food. With so many easy-outs, even a standard issue fear of the unknown could make me chicken-out, let alone all the assumptions that this man’s question just let loose. If I had let myself think, would I have been fearful? Apprehensive? Suspicious? Cautious? Guarded? Worried? Contemptuous, even? Was I? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But that could be because, now that I’m here, they all sound pretty nutty. What I am feeling is relaxed, comfortable, interested, at-ease—I’m having fun.
At 12:30 (on the dot) Wayne starts things off with the usual reminders—no flash photography; phones off. This, of course, gets a big laugh, as we’ve all just sacrificed our devices for the day. “But,” says Wayne, throwing us a bone, “for those of you who really need your phones . . . at the break . . . we will have counselors available to help you.”
During the first session we hear stories about fatherhood, nerds, intelligence, change, reentry, Abe Lincoln, enemies, and the talent, abilities, and charity that can be found inside these prison walls.
At the break, I meet an inmate named Todd and find out he is the same Todd whose art was just featured in Najmuddeen Salaam’s talk. I also find out that when Naj said Todd had made a grandfather clock “by hand” he meant by hand. No power tools. No tools. To shape the molding Todd used a paper clip.
In the second session, we hear about gardening, laughter, inner demons, and, again, the earlier themes of family, inmate philanthropy, reentry, social acceptance, and the lack thereof.
What I can say about the talks is: watch them. I’d suggest in order, but if you’d prefer to start with some laughs, try FrankHerrington&Co or Ricky. If you’re ready to jump headlong into heart wrenching, it’s a toss-up, but I’ll suggest Diego. For a sound argument, there’s Juan. For inspiration, you could go with the inmate who figured out how to stock neighboring food banks or the one who’s an expert fundraiser for individuals in need. With either one, Ben or Jim, you’ll also get heart wrenching and hilarity—they do say that in prison humor is a matter of survival.
Of the eleven talks, six are by inmates, one by a former inmate, and four by not-ever inmates. The sessions also include two TED videos, one dance, and two musical performances. Without a doubt, the inmates are the most compelling speakers, though each of the other four share information worth hearing or a perspective necessary to the whole conversation.
I would like to say more about the talks themselves, but the truth is every time I try, I fail. I’ll start thinking about Diego’s talk, where he traces his downfall to the essential mistake of leaving his baby son and his redemption to renewing that relationship, and my mind spills over to the conversation I had with a “lifer” and his fiancé about their relationship, and also to the between-talks spontaneous hug between Dan and his daughter.
I’ll consider the talk by Ben, who asks, “Will I have to move to another country to be a citizen again?” and his question becomes utterly inseparable from everything I’ve experienced that day: talks; interactions; witnessing others interact; standing in line in the “chow hall;” the hoots and hollers from the audience; the fact that the first to hoot was Marion’s own warden; Jim’s Chinet-plate painting I walk out the door with and his hilariously wry and moving talk explaining it; and even later hearing myself say “I had dinner with two lifers” and knowing how weird that sounds and how not even close to weird it was.
TEDx was introduced as a democratization of TED and what better example than TEDxMarionCorrectional: The oft-called “elitist” TED brings us inside our most disparaged and ghettoized community. At the same time, I wish the TED rules might bend a bit for this event. Watching online you’ll see what happened on the red circle on the stage, but you won’t get to know Wayne, nor will you hear Rusty’s banter as emcee. You won’t see the Speed TEDxing sessions, or dinner in the “pollination station.” Watch anyway.
But as you do, understand that at TEDxMarionCorrectional, what is talked about on stage—life inside; life outside; the preparation, transition, connection, division between the two—is exactly what is happening off stage.
It is a powerful thing to experience and as can happen with powerful experiences, I walked out a different person than I walked in. It’s a cliché I won’t even try to avoid. But I will try to be more specific:
For starters, there’s how I think about the question: Would you ever hire an ex-prisoner?
Before: I would have entertained this theoretical question.
After: I realize it’s not a question. It’s the same as asking, “Would you hire a human?” To which the answer is: “Depends, which human?”
Before: I would have accepted “better safe than sorry” as an understandable response to this question.
After: I understand that there is no “better safe then sorry.” To reduce a person to one thing, and then use it to deny what is offered to others, is always dangerous.
It’s not as if I didn’t know this before—it’s Humanity 101—but I needed the inmates at Marion to help me practice it.
Before: I didn’t think about who was behind the walls at Marion.
After: I know there are some impressive people behind those walls. Many are doing more good for the world certainly than I am. I hold this knowledge right alongside an understanding and sensitivity to the reality that, to some, just to hear the name of these men is painful.
I left TEDxMarionCorrectional with a new and intensely sharp clarity on some things and perpetually unresolvable confusion on many others, including the discordant fact that the point of prison is to keep those inside separate from me, yet in breaking that separation my life is enriched.
Don’t misunderstand, no part of me is calling for those walls to come down and my inner skeptic remains alive and well: I get that I saw one pre-approved slice of one prison and I’m also aware that prisons reward good behavior in a way that life does not. But my skeptic is also smarter now, more just, and less prone to turn a fact into an excuse for prejudice or an eraser of good deeds.
I also left TEDxMarionCorrectional feeling lucky. For my freedom? No, turns out I need to work on my gratitude because that was not my first thought. I felt lucky for having gone in. All I did was type my name into Eventbrite and clear one Sunday, and in return I received the huge gift of this experience. For next year, I know what I’m getting into and I can’t wait.
Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com