Two of us here at TEDxOhioStateUniversity went to prison a couple weeks ago. Don’t worry, it’s not what you think. And yes, we’re ok.

For the past year, TEDxOhioStateUniversity has been collaborating with Marion Correctional Institute (MCI) in Marion, Ohio. Our partnership has been to assist, advise and support their TEDx program: TEDxMarionCorrectional. On September 24th, Jessie Mongillio (Content Team member) and I went as audience members for an event that Marion Correctional Institute puts on in conjunction with Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit organization.This year's event was I am Hamlet. We can both confidently say it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.

Jessie and I took the hour-long trip up to MCI where we went through the familiar processes of signing in, getting our visitor badges and being escorted in. We were led into the large chapel inside the prison where the show would be put on. We were delighted to be greeted by some of the guys we’ve gotten to know from past adventures to MCI, as well as the wonderful Jo Dee Davis (MCI organizer, TEDxMarionCorrectional curator, and our main contact with MCI). Shortly thereafter, the show began. To Jessie and I’s understanding, I am Hamlet was an interpretation of the famed Shakespeare tragedy, Hamlet. We were not ready for what was about to come; as it turns out, all 15 of the guys performing in the show played the titular role of Hamlet over the course of the play.

It sounds a little crazy but hear us out - this was a careful creative choice. If you are familiar with the original Hamlet, you know that the character Hamlet evolves over the course the play; by the end of the play, there are almost multiple versions of him. Each of the guys either chose or were assigned some of Hamlet’s lines. For some, it was because they connected to the language and the emotions of the piece; for others, it was because someone told them they’d be good at it. And that’s when it clicked: each actor was playing a different one of those versions of Hamlet, and they personally identified with each one. It was an original take on a beloved classic. For instance, they split the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy to become a back-and-forth conversation between two versions of Hamlet. They even wrote in original musical numbers; our favorite was a beautiful, heart-rending rap written for Ophelia’s funeral scene. It was a confluence of treasured, traditional Shakespearean content and original, contemporary work that came together seamlessly. Full disclosure: Jessie and I personally have not seen many interpretations of Hamlet, but this will probably always be our favorite.

After the show, the cast and crew held a short Q+A session for the audience, which mostly consisted of us incessantly showering them with compliments and gratitude for what their incredible performance. Naturally, we thought we were done for the night, but that’s not how MCI works. There are always more surprises and we were really in for a treat. After the Q+A session, MCI used the rest of the evening to show all the incredible work they do with Healing Broken Circles.

A little background on Healing Broken Circles: as mentioned earlier, it is a non-profit corporation, operated for “educational, charitable and pro-social purposes,” specifically for those involved in the justice system in any way. Healing Broken Circles has been collaborating with MCI on a variety of artistic projects, including their production of I am Hamlet, as well as their TEDx program. After the play, we got to taste a little bit of the other creative outlets MCI inmates have been given (and utilized) to show that they are much more than just a prisoner.

While waiting in line for dinner, (where we were served some pretty amazing wraps believe it or not), we saw some ridiculously good paintings. I swear - Jessie and I were staring at an oil painting of Muhammad Ali for a good five minutes straight. And we got to meet the artist! Once we grabbed our dinners, we were then escorted a small courtyard area to mingle with the rest of the MCI guys who do work with Healing Broken Circles. We met Sal, the painter of the Muhammed Ali portrait (and many others), and talked to him for a good while; we learned he was once on death row. He had only just recently been taken off, and now does the aforementioned paintings that completely mesmerized us. Sal then proceeded to ask us about our artistic endeavors. I was so embarrassed that all I’ve done was some freestyle drawings that at the time I was really proud of until I saw Sal’s work. Sal was only the tip of the iceberg of the evening: we meandered to a bucket drum circle, where Jessie was swept into it at one point. But hey, how many people can say they played drums with a felon (while IN prison)?
After Jessie finished unleashing her inner rockstar, we wandered over to the slam-poetry section of the courtyard. Jessie and I are HUGE fans of poetry, specifically of the slam variety. Boy, we heard powerful, resonant words that day. What I found most interesting was that almost all of the poems were about love and romance: looking, losing, and longing for love. Almost nothing about injustice, or unfairness, or other self-victimizing subjects you might assume a felon may talk about.

We can’t praise these guys enough for the incredible work they do through Healing Broken Circles. To cap off the evening, we caught up with a couple of the TEDxMarionCorrectional guys, Todd and Dan. Todd was in the play, and his mother was in attendance. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling ear-to-ear like an idiot hearing how proud his mother was of him and what he’s accomplished, despite his prison sentence. Dan assisted the play as well, but Dan’s specialty is definitely his poetry. We got to hear a sampling of it the very first time we came to MCI, and Jessie vividly remembers having physical chills listening to it (his poetry is THAT good). Dan caught us up with other upcoming events at MCI, as well as the writing he’s been doing (and publishing!). And just like that, the day was over, but by then we didn’t want to.

In all seriousness, this was an awesome experience. We understand and are aware that the men we interacted with for several hours on the 24th are criminals. Despite being convicted felons, the guys at Marion Correctional are absolutely wonderful. Personally, we don’t think it’s fair to say that a person’s character should be judged by just one action. Yes - these guys have all committed serious crimes. We’re not saying they shouldn’t be in prison; what we’re trying to say is this: there is a reason we keep going back to Marion Correctional Institute. Every single time, we are floored by these guys. They are humanized in a way that we cannot accurately or appropriately synthesize into words. They don’t laugh at the girl who can’t play the drums to save her life. They don’t patronize the girl for her comparatively subpar drawing skills. They listen intently about your life, passions, and ambitions. They don’t judge you for any of it because they too have their hopes, hobbies, talents, and methods of catharsis; they try new things and lead by example to encourage others to do so too. And we’re better for having met them.

Relevant Links:
TEDxMarionCorrectional’s video playlist of their 2014 Conference, “Refolding the Box”

Healing Broken Circle official website

Dan’s piece published in The Marshall Project (an online nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system)