Culture TEDx

Ideas on lockdown: A look at TEDx events held in prisons

Yes, TEDx has been behind bars. Since the birth of the TEDx program in 2009, independently organized events have been held at correctional facilities in at least three countries — at youth and adult institutions, both with speakers and without.

In Spain, organizer Antonella Broglia was determined to bring TEDx to Soto Del Real prison outside Madrid. “They do not have Internet inside the prison,” she explains. “They do not even have the infrastructures to make sure they will have Internet in the future. Bringing TEDTalks inside that huge prison made them known to people who had no idea TED existed. I believe this is our major responsibility as organizers: open new minds, contact new hearts. And I was inspired by a group of volunteers who work to use culture in prison as a tool for redemption. They made me see that a TEDTalk could be a means for redemption—or at least for discussion.”

So far, there have been two TEDx Salon events (where only TEDTalks are shown) in the prison and this month, TEDxSotoDelReal will host its first standard event. Brogila hopes that inmates will not just be audience members, but speakers as well.

Five thousand miles away in the United States, TEDxMingusMountain grew out of another event, TEDxScottsdale. Organizer Bob Diehl explains, “A woman marched up to me, announced that she is a convicted felon and that she has now dedicated her life to helping incarcerated women live full lives in prison, and told me she wants to do a TEDx in [a] prison.” Unsurprisingly, Diehl was intrigued.

This woman, Sue Ellen Allen, took the reins and became the organizer for TEDxMingusMountain, planned to take place five months later in a residential facility for 12 to 18-year-old girls in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

But the journey to TEDxMingusMountain wasn’t easy. Allen says, “The administration was hesitant. They were unfamiliar with TED. While educating them on the concept, we had a change in the director halfway though the discussions.”

Diehl and Allen were forced to push back the event date by almost a year, after an unrelated event put the facility into lockdown.

“We were only told six weeks [before the event] we could have a new date,” says Diehl. “The entire original TEDx team and presenter roster were no longer available, so it was a challenge to get it done in time.”

Still, the show went on.

“The formal TEDxMingusMountain was allowed to take one hour,” Diehl recalls. “The girls’ day was re-arranged to accommodate it. The residential population and their staff assembled in the facility’s gymnasium. There was no air conditioning, and no blackout curtains on the windows. We left Phoenix at 6am to make the 9am start time, and had 30 minutes to set up.”

Allen said that she was pleasantly surprised by how receptive the audience was.

“After [presenting in prisons] for 2 1/2 years, I can recognize the sounds of the audience,” she tells the TED Blog. “There can be the sound of silence or the sound of rustling. For this event, the sound of silence trumped the rustling. Many times during the event you could hear dead silence as the girls listened intently.”

During the talks, one of the girls was seen “writing furiously,” says Allen. Later in the day, she learned that the girl was writing poems.

“She presented them to each of our performers,” Allen said. “They are unedited, raw and beautiful. This girl has had unspeakable life experiences. “

After such success, Allen plans to continue hosting TEDx events in prisons. “I want to stick with TEDx because it is all about ideas and education,” she said. “If we can bring more of this inside the razor wires of our systems, I know we can impact lives. I really believe TEDx is the vehicle to do it.”

Her enthusiasm matches that of organizer Jordan Edelheit, of TEDxMarionCorrectional in Ohio, who stepped foot into a prison for the first time only five months before her event.

“TEDxMarionCorrectional [was] an opportunity to give a voice to a section of our society who is rarely heard from and often times overlooked and cast aside,” she said. “Although I was confident that our team had put together a thought-provoking event, I don’t think I was fully prepared for the amount of people — both inside and outside guests —to respond with such emotion. At least seven incarcerated men came up to myself and the fellow organizers to look us in the eyes and thank us. Since the event, they have repeated time and time again how TEDxMarionCorrectional created an environment where they ‘felt human again.’”

For the team behind TEDxLipcaniPrison in Moldova (pictured above), enthusiasm was not as easily conjured.

“I never before had to face so much rejection, and indifference,” said organizer Elena Zgardan, adding that her feelings turned around as soon as she met some of the prisoners for whom she was planning the event. “I got to visit the prison and…after having a discussion for almost two hours with more than 10 convicts, I knew that the TEDx event is not only something great and needed, but that the timing was perfect. More than half of the boys I talked to were soon to be released from prison. I think the event gave the youth from the prison a view of an alternative life, a life that may be theirs as well.”

She concludes, “There are a few moments that will remain with me … [but] no matter how high my expectations could be, I could never expect tears in their eyes.”

Stay tuned to the TED Blog all this week for a celebration of TEDx or, if you’re curious, check out the TEDx blog.