Sue Ellen Allen

Ex-Director, Gina's Team
Scottsdale, AZ, United States

About Sue Ellen

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What would you do if you suddenly found yourself in prison with advanced breast cancer at 57? How would you cope? It happened to Sue Ellen Allen. This former University of Texas grad, former educator, former business owner, former community leader, former inmate at Arizona State Prison is a current activist who found her purpose in prison. She is co-founder and Executive Director for GINA's Team, an organization that brings educational programs into prison to inspire and empower the inmate population to strive for a better future and a successful reentry into their communities. GINA’s Team is named for her prison roommate, Gina Panetta, who died there of medical neglect. Gina’s death was the defining moment of Sue Ellen’s journey, giving her life a new purpose and passion. Her motto is

Been there. Done that.
Now how can I help?

In prison, under harsh conditions, she survived advanced breast cancer and learned to turn her pain into power. Despite incredible odds, she found her passion. Now she works with prison officials, legislators, and interns from Arizona State University to serve the forgotten population behind bars so that upon their re-entry to society, they will join our community as positive, contributing members.

The author of The Slumber Party from Hell, a memoir about her prison journey, Sue Ellen was awarded the Dawson Prize in Memoir in the 2009 Prison Writing Contest for PEN American Center. Her writing was also included in Serving Productive Time by Tom & Laura Lagana, authors of Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul. Additionally, many of her poems have been published in Cosmopolitan magazine.

She is also an inspirational speaker with a unique story and powerful message. She believes everyone is in their own kind of prison. Surviving a very real one gave her untold strength and enthusiasm to do the work she does, working behind the wires to impact lives. She counts this journey through prison with breast cancer to be a gift, a weird one but a gift nevertheless and she is grateful for it.

Areas of Expertise

Prison Issues, Prison volunteering

An idea worth spreading

"Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention." Gina's Team, in collaboration with Martha Mertz, founder of ATHENA International, teaches the 8 Principles of ATHENA Leadership inside the Arizona women's prison. These principles, Live Authentically, Learn Constantly, Advocate Fiercely, Act Courageously, Foster Collaboration, Build Relationships, Give Back, and Celebrate, are a paradigm shift in thinking for inmates. To add to the momentum of the class, we have started Book Clubs, the first ones in an Arizona prison. We also offer bi-monthly educational/motivational events. Our graduates are eligible to be a part of Gina's ATHENA Team Alumni Association(GAT). Upon their release, GAT meets them at the gate, provides supplies for their new life and a mentor to help them acclimate to freedom. Gina's Team works with inmates inside and continues with them upon release to help them become a positive part of their new communities.

I'm passionate about

At Gina's Team our motto is "Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention." Yet there is little education behind the wires and budgets for education are not growing.

Talk to me about

How theater, poetry, literature and art can impact lives in prison.

People don't know I'm good at

I make delicious apricot jam, candied jalapeños, and balsamic glaze. Yum!

My TED story

Imagine sitting in a prison cell reading an article about TED in Oprah magazine. What I missed desperately (besides my husband, yogurt and tomatoes) was intelligent conversation. Here was an entire organization dedicated to intelligent TED Talks. It sounded like a dream. I saved the article. Fast forward to freedom. Suddenly I'm invited to a TEDx. I went and it was all I imagined and more. Now I had a new dream. How could we get TED into prison where I believed people would soak this up like the proverbial sponge? (It's not like the movies, honestly.) Well, the prison world moves slowly but our first TEDx will take place this month at a juvenile facility for girls in Arizona. And Gina's Team is working with the prison to bring TED Talks inside through closed circuit TV. Now THAT's exciting. TED has the ability to wake up people behind the wires and change lives in ways we can't even imagine. That's the power of TED.