Debate Team Collaborates with Penitentiary for First Ever Debate

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Illustration by Lya Hernandez

After removing all pieces of metal, storing keys, cell phones and wallets in lockers, Whitman College staff, faculty and students filed into the Washington State Penitentiary. At an automatic metal door, driver’s licenses were traded for prison ID badges that allowed access to a sparsely furnished recreation room, the walls painted with brightly colored murals. Inmate debaters sat on either side of a podium, accompanied by four or five Whitman students, ready to begin the debate.

Two years ago, a member of the Washington State Penitentiary education staff, Dr. Joe Cooke, Jr., approached the Whitman debate program about hosting a debate where Whitman students and prisoners debate together over current issues. Dec. 3, 2013 marked the date of the first ever debate.

“The debate team is committed to public outreach when possible and working on educational opportunities for those incarcerated individuals working on their degrees is a perfect example of that,” said Director of Debate Kevin Kuswa. “In my opinion, the Whitman students learned a great deal from the experience, including a greater sense of perspective, a connection to debate that goes beyond just winning and losing, and a way to bring research and speaking skills to a group that will need those skills to adjust once they get out of the Penitentiary.”

The prisoners who participated in Tuesday’s debate are currently taking debate classes through a program from Walla Walla Community College. The class focuses on respectful, nonviolent disagreement, reflection and research. Twelve Whitman students had 11 hours with the prisoners to prepare for the debate.

“Debate is a valuable tool for anyone, especially people who often need to advocate for themselves in the judicial system,” said first-year debater Emma Newmark. “Getting Whitman debaters involved in the prison debates is a way for debaters to share our expertise with those who can benefit from the skills that are associated with debate and public speaking.”

The debate was set up with an introduction, two main arguments, two chances for acknowledgment and rebuttal, a segment of answering questions from the audience and closing remarks. Prisoners debated the following question: Should the prison system in the United States be fully privatized?

Those who debated in favor of the resolution argued that private prisons are a better option than public prisons and that they’re better for prisoners and not overcrowded.

“The public system has botched everything, especially recidivism [overcrowdedness],” said inmate Kevin Kafiyev in his opening statement. “Inmates in private prisons have better food, more access to educational programming and they tend to like it better.”

They also argued that there could be federal government oversight to the private prisons in the form of a social impact bond, which is a contract that requires the company to meet a standard set by an employer.

“Yes, there might be some problems with private prisons,” said Whitman debate senior Marten King. “But a social impact bond that requires a company to meet government standards, such as lowering recidivism levels, would fix that.”

Those who debated against the resolution argued that privatizing the prison system would put a monetary value on human life, and thus would morph the prison system from an institution of punishment and rehabilitation to a corporation system that needs to fill beds to turn a profit.

“The future of safety and health of inmates would be based on profits and values of the shareholders,” said inmate Muntasir Dykes. “The nature of the profit model means more prisons and more people incarcerated.”

After a drumroll, the con side was announced to have won the debate, arguing that prisons should not be privatized. During a small question and answer, it came to light how it was decided who would debate what.

“Part of how we divided up the teams was an informal poll seeing which side of the resolution people initially supported,” said sophomore debater Emma Thompson. “The goal was to require people to debate for the side opposite their initial inclination, which is, in my experience, the best way to really understand an issue, because it requires a thorough understanding of both sides and is great practice for developing critical nuanced perspectives.”

After the debate, debaters dispersed into the audience to talk about the decision, as well as the program that allowed them to debate.

“It was a very professional debate,” said sophomore and current Whitman debater Meritt Salathe. “Everyone did a lot of research, and that came through in a big way. I learned a lot about the issue.”

Among the spectators, men in khakis, white T-shirts and gleaming white sneakers, which is all garb designated for inmates, watched the debate quietly and thoughtfully, occasionally gracing their fellow inmates with a smile or a small nod.

“It was interesting to see these guys put their skills to use,” said inmate spectator Stephen Gagnon. “Some of them are in my economics class, and they’ve done some small debate there, but it was good to see them outside of class.”

Kuswa added that the event provided an opportunity to gain valuable interpersonal skills.

“Debate is a way to make learning accessible to students in different positions and with diverse goals,” he said. “[It] allowed both groups to treat each other with respect by looking at the specific research and arguments above and beyond a certain social location. Academic exercises like debate are also incredibly valuable in giving the debaters the confidence to address problems through dialogue and deliberation.”

Editors’ Note, Jan. 20, 2013 10:34 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify Emma Thompson is a sophomore, not a first-year.




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Responses


Domingo Rodriguez Dec 12, 2013 17:44 PM

Bravo! I commend the school’s accomplishments in reaching out to promote effective communication. I love that you are creating space for high quality communication education. My congratulations go out to the debate team and the prisoners who choose to participate.


Elena Aragon Jan 15, 2014 11:07 AM

Emma Thompson is a sophomore, not a first year.


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