The first ever TEDx in an adult prison held its second TEDx on April 21, 2013. To tell the story of this uncommon event we decided to share perspectives from both sides of the prison walls. Our editor and first-time TEDxMarionCorrectional attendee, Kendra Hovey, shared her experience in our May post “From Outside In.” Now we hear about the event “From Inside Out.” Below is our interview (questions submitted, answers returned, all in writing) with five guys on the inside: Dan and Wayne (co-founders and co-curators, and identified as such with an asterick*) as well as attendees Dave, John, and William. But before we begin, 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.
TEDxMarionCorrectional: From Inside Out
An interview with Dan, Dave, John, Wayne & William
FT: Many inmates were curious about how those from the outside felt about the experience of coming into a prison, what did it feel like for you to have the general public inside?
Wayne*: It is nice to be a host. I don’t often (ever) get the opportunity to have company over, in a social setting…
FT: …And did you have concerns or preconceptions about us?
Dave: I figured there would be some who had issues about coming inside these walls . . . but I was sure we could change their perception.
John: I felt very excited about meeting people from the general public. I know from TV and newspapers that the public is tough on crime. So when the conversation is about inmates the majority of people put up a wall and close their minds. Being able to share with people with an open mind was very enlightening and a new experience. I was very happy with the care that the public showed us.
Dan*: I love it! The rapidity that we as a group move past small talk into substantive conversation is somewhat incredible and maybe impossible anywhere else. I am blown away by the organic nature of the day.
Dave: The entire experience for me was awesome. I spoke at the last one so I got to experience this one without the nerves and pressure of performing.
William: [People] seemed genuinely impressed and maybe even a little relieved to learn that something of substance was taking place within these walls.
FT: Turning for a moment to curatorial guidelines—and this is directed to Dan and Wayne—what criteria did you use to choose your speakers?
Wayne*: Wait! There are curatorial guidelines???
Dan*: Auditions are open to the general population of the prison…
Wayne*: We ask for a rough guideline of their idea. Then anything worth looking at, we tape a five-minute version of their talk and, from there, we choose to work with the guys that had a “something.”
Dan*: Those in the disciplinary housing units were excluded from the audition process by the Warden’s guidelines, as were any men with disciplinary problems in the last 12 months. Other than that, our talkers could be from any socio-economic background and have any educational level. We don’t exclude anyone due to the crime they committed or their criminal history.
FT: In most of the inmate talks this year, both the life experiences that led to crime and the crime itself are acknowledged, but deemphasized—at least as compared to last year’s talks. Was this a curatorial choice? Also, do victim rights limit what inmates can tell about their story?
Dan*: This was a curatorial choice for the most part. After the first event, a lot of the feedback from guys in here was that they could go to any self-help group or AA meeting and hear personal testimonies. This year we kept an eye out for those with an idea or theory that, while not a testimony, was still unique to an inmate’s point of view and true to our theme…
Wayne*: We wanted to move towards a more normal TEDx event. However, having only ever seen two events, we worked towards what we thought a normal event would be like…
Dan*: We still tried to get our talkers to use their personal stories as a vehicle to carry their idea to the audience.
Wayne*: I don’t really know if there are any guidelines on this issue [victim rights]. We assumed there were and made decisions we felt were appropriate. We didn’t censor, we just tried to be sensitive.
Dan*: Not sure if there is a legal limit, however I think there is a limit to what guys are willing to share. Especially in a video that everyone will be able to see forever. Personally, I don’t think fondly of the kid I was at age 21 and I can’t expect anyone else to. So how do I reveal myself enough to show my authenticity without losing my standing in their eyes? Is that, or should that be a factor?
Dan*: Might as well ask me which of my kids is my favorite! I did have a lot of guys commenting on how awesome the b-boy/b-girl dance piece was [Deryk]. Nothing like that had hit our prison stage before.
Dave: Frank & Company just because that shit was funny.
John: Jim’s “Domino Deeds” was my favorite talk. I’ve known him for 30+ years. Most of the men that are “old-law” and in for capital crimes are very remorseful for their crime and just want to do some good in this world. They’re tired of hating and being hated. I love his idea of paying it forward and helping someone, somehow.
Wayne*: On the day of the event, I truly enjoyed Deryk and Jim—for the inside information I had. In prison, Deryk has had no opportunities to practice his art and the little practice time he got with the outside dancers on Saturday and Sunday was great for him. Jim has been incarcerated for a very long time and never spoke to a group larger than could sit at a picnic table. The courage he displayed in taking the stage was incredible. It helped that both performances were flat out amazing.
FT: Did any talk particularly resonate with your own experience?
Dan*: I think each of the talks affected me in some way, just as every conversation I had during the day did. But I really connected to Diego’s talk. I also had this fantastic conviction that I wouldn’t be like my dad. I would be there, I would keep my promises, I wouldn’t be violent and I wouldn’t make them Browns fans . . .. But then I also abandoned them with my terrible life decisions.
William: Yes, Diego’s talk really touched me. I’m not afraid to admit that I openly wept. The loss of the relationship with my son has been the hardest thing to deal with during my near ten years of incarceration. I’ve missed so much and have no one to blame but myself…
Wayne*: Ben’s thought that I may have to leave the country to be a citizen again really resonated with me. I’ll always face the Google problem.
Dave: Jim’s talk grabbed me. I mentor people, and to see them do something they couldn’t before or to see them get a better understanding of life, or to watch them mature and build a deeper connection. It [mentoring] is like Jim’s paintings—the one life I took I’m trying to give back through it.
Wayne*: I gained something from each person that hit our stage, but the one that jumps out is Sam Grisham. For a chief of security of a prison to share his story like that is quite unique. The perspective he shared of his job was insightful.
Dan*: Another voice that needed to be heard was Rickey’s [“Intelligence is the New Swagger”]. We need to counter the culture of failure that our kids are bombarded with and Rickey’s talk might reach those that Glee won’t.
John: I know that it will be hard to adjust back into society, but after hearing Naj speak… his talents and qualifications should have outweighed his past, not to mention the number of years he served in here. If society was against him, how will they react to me after serving 40 years? Should I not even try to fit in, sparing society the embarrassment and me the heartache?
FT: Did this TEDx event have a positive effect on you? On other prisoners? In what ways?
Dan*: The inside guys got to see that they are still human beings, that prison hadn’t dehumanized them as much as they feared, and that society, albeit a small section of it, will still converse and interact with them.
John: If this event changed one person’s perception of life, that people change, and deserve a second chance, it could not help but have a positive effect on me and on all prisoners.
Dan*: And to have been able to somehow encourage a man to step out of his peer group and put his identity on the line to spread an idea or more importantly share his story is a positive effect if ever I’ve seen one.
FT: What do you see as the positive effects for those outside of prison?
William: To see first-hand that incarceration can in fact cause someone to re-evaluate themselves and their decision-making process, and begin anew.
John: A chance to look at people differently.
Dave: It allows us to connect with the public and allow them to see we still have something to offer the world.
Dan*: The 6 o’clock news mentions on a daily basis that someone has been sentenced to x amount of time. But what happens while they’re in prison? How are they treated? What program is offered and also facilitated successfully? And x implies that person will be returning to the community. How do you want us to return to your community? The not very good human I was when I came into these walls? Or as the human being who has lived up to his potential, lives each day wholeheartedly and with communal self-awareness? These are questions that those outside of prison need to ask. These are the conversations that need to happen more often than the tougher on crime conversations. It will take many more events before we as a society start to question whether we need to, or can, come up with a better way to lower crime and rehabilitate those that we incarcerate.
Wayne*: And it offers insight into a part of society that they had no idea was so large. With the number of people being incarcerated and released each year, aspects of prison culture have already seeped into mainstream culture. And you may not realize how many felons there are in every neighborhood in America. How a society chooses to deal with criminals impacts the overall health of society.
FT: What kinds of responses did you get, if any, from inmates who watched the event on the live stream?
Dave: That we are rock stars!—no, seriously, I am.
John: They all want to be part of TEDxMarionCorrectional. The two doormen were bombarded with guys wanting to enter into the event for session two.
Wayne*: Many were proud to know that such an event was taking place in “their” institution…
Dan*: Inspired. Inspired is the word I heard the most from guys. Inspired by the fact that a TEDx event could take place in prison. Inspired that they weren’t the only ones who thought the way our talkers (inside and outside) did. Inspired to hear that CEOs recognize the stark reality of social acceptance for ex-offenders and are working towards a remedy. Inspired…wow! Isn’t that what every TED talk aims to do? Not only inform its audience, but inspire action from its audience too?
FT: Thank you.