I spent this past weekend in prison. I didn’t exactly stay the night or see the inside of a cell, but I spent several hours in a room below the glaring barb wire, behind the electric fence with 100 inmates and 100 civilians. In that space, for one brief moment, we got to interact without the barriers of outside prejudice or fear (on both ends) and simply enjoy each others company. I was proudly part of a TED x event in San Diego county at Donovan state correctional facility as the “performer” who opened up each session with a song. TED x events are prestigious events where speakers who have rehearsed their speeches down to the letter pour out wisdom and inspiration to the world. This was a particularly special TED event, where the speakers consisted of 4 outside speakers and 4 inmates. This was the meshing of two worlds that never see one another and, as you can imagine, it was incredibly moving.
Upon arriving at the facility, meeting some of the incarcerated speakers and backing crew, I was elated and excited to get to know them. I know, however, for some this was a little intimidating. For the outsider who has never known anyone in prison apart from what they see on TV, perhaps they felt a little wary. And for the prisoner who is only limited to family visits and volunteer programs inside the prison, this was the first time in a long time that they would be in a normal social setting with outsiders who might view them as any number of things you might find under the umbrella of “criminal”. Being asked several times how I felt about my first time inside of Prison I saw surprise on the mens faces when I explained I was not really worried. There was a common ground when we all met as fellow humans, and there is nothing more dignified than finding common ground.
During several of our breakout sessions where we were paired up with inmates or during the lunch we shared (which apparently was far superior to their normal staples), I saw their hearts and interests erupt beneath the blue uniform. In one such instance, a very intelligent young man spoke of his passion for marketing and I imagined what an amazing firm he might run outside those walls. Then there was the talented Daniel who brought his guitar (and also spoke with passion on the stage), our common passion for music bonding us instantly. Our wonderful MC who introduced all the speakers and made announcements from the stage with natural entertainment fervor was a man who could preach or sing or do stand up and be equally contagious. Its hard to come into contact with such as these and not see all they hold, treasure troves of humanity. It is hard to think anyone does not hold this capacity for greatness, it is only their choice to discover and thereby be discovered.
It was a privilege to spend time with these men, and get to know them in such a short period of time. I was deeply impacted by the courage of the speakers to get on a stage and tell their stories from a point of inspiration and all they have learned. You could tangibly feel the desire to contribute, and to want to impart things they wished they had known earlier in life (don’t we all!) I was moved to tears by their honesty, their heartbreak, the common thread of neglect and abuse. I felt the humility of those coming to terms with their wrongdoings, how and where their hearts were damaged and flawed. I felt impressed by the great work of courage to rise up out of these circumstances amidst their current incarcerated position, and choose life. I was floored by their authority and the demand upon my heart to love my children well, to be grateful for every precious moment, and to know I always have a choice to rise up out of any adversity.
I left that day with the odd feeling that comes with knowing I will not run into these people. It was bittersweet and surreal, maybe the way you feel when you have left a foreign country. They may only be an hour drive from my comfortable world, but it is true that they exist in another world from mine. One that I could never understand, even having only visited. Every day they fight for their identity, for their autonomy, and to know they matter. As for me, I felt honored and listened to. I felt an overwhelming sense of connection and I walked away feeling filled up, for I had been poured in to. Sometimes, when you set out to give and you walk away with more than what you started with, you realize the value of getting outside of yourself. All I know is I went to Prison, and I left with a full heart.
To see more check out www.tedxdonovancorrectional.com