I know a good movie when I see one, but recently I had a day that was more fascinating, inspiring and compelling than the greatest of films. And every minute of it was real.
Picture driving on a desolate two-lane road, past one low flat building after another, before seeing the tall steel fences and razor wire that signal your destination: a maximum security prison, blazing hot, in the middle of the desert, not far from the border between California and Arizona, an hour past the sunny vacation destination of Palm Springs. After several checks of your identification and passing through multiple sets of sliding steel gates, you’re directed down a long sidewalk with an empty yard on one side and concrete buildings on the other. It’s eerily quiet, though you know 3,280 men live here in a space built for 2,200.
But inside these concrete buildings, something extraordinary is happening. The largest prison education program in California is thriving at Ironwood State Prison, where men are transcribing college textbooks into Braille, learning trade skills and where an astonishing 1200+ students have earned college degrees.
Most of the men at Ironwood are in for hard time — though not necessarily for hard crime. Many are affected by California’s three-strikes law under which even low-level felonies, such as writing a bad check, can garner a strike on the way to serving 25-to-life sentences. Men, even young men, rattled off how long they had been in: 19 years, 25 years, 33 years. And they weren’t even close to getting out.
Somehow, some way, these men are building hope, developing compassion and coming to terms with what they’ve done. In some cases, they are coming to terms with the fact that their actions mean they may never step outside these walls again. They may die at Ironwood. And yet they are finding ways to be productive.
Ironwood has also become a beacon of hope for 18-year-olds sentenced to adult prison for the first time. Here they become students and enter the college program mentored by the “lifers,” who have learned their lessons the hard way and don’t want this next generation to follow in their footsteps. These young students are able to avoid the typical prison experience of drugs, violence and negativity because Ironwood has created a culture, a new normal, centered around education, transformation and personal responsibility. And this culture change has manifested itself in a new sense of pride by both students and staff.
That’s what led TED to believe this was an idea worth spreading. On May 10, TED, which produces and markets short, informational talks, presented TEDx IronwoodStatePrison, the first event of its kind to be held inside the walls of a California prison.
TEDx Ironwood elevated the importance of correctional education. Actors, musicians, activists, foundation leaders and even Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group, found their way to Ironwood, where a prison gym was transformed into a sound stage with lights, cameras, microphones and chairs for 150 men who are incarcerated at Ironwood and 150 visitors in attendance. And who most impressed the audience? The incarcerated, who coordinated, hosted and spoke on a theme they called, Infinite Possibilities.
The event highlighted the fact that correctional education programs have been shown to save dollars and greatly decrease recidivism rates, which means they increase public safety. In California, 95 percent of incarcerated individuals are released from prison, and two thirds of them end up behind bars again. The men advocated that it’s smarter to use education to give those who are released the best possible shot at a second chance. I’ve seen this through my own work with the InsideOUT Writers program, through which incarcerated young people are given the opportunity to use creative writing as a catalyst for personal transformation. And we welcome these men and woman home and into colleges and Universities, through our organization, The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).
At the TEDx event, these men worked with a sense of self and purpose. They showed that change is possible. Some had made reckless mistakes and others had made horrific choices that landed them at Ironwood. But they are showing the power of the human spirit while serving their time and working toward redemption. At TEDx they shared their personal journeys and their faith in the future.
As I said, I know a good story when I see one. But don’t take my word for it — see for yourself.
Watch four videos from the TEDx IronwoodStatePrison series below, by, respectively, Sir Richard Branson, inmate Sean Wilson, inmate Marquis Clark, and Ironwood Prison employee and victim of crime, Ellen Rutledge.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Charlotte Street Films in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug-related crimes.