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May 09 2010

Law Students Debate Prison Debate Team: Result- No Losers

Two years ago, I was asked by David McCallum, (whose innocence I am trying to prove as he serves his 24th year in prison for a murder he didn’t commit), whether I would consider bringing in a team of my law students to debate a prison debate team that had formed at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, the State prison on Staten Island that was David’s latest home. The prison team had able to just debate each other and had wanted to test their skills against outside competition.  I agreed and brought a team of 4 students to debate the inmates. It was such a rousing success that it has become an annual event and the team has since taken on other law schools and undergraduate institutions.

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the team in an article found at the following link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/08/nyregion/08bigcity.html

The Times reported that the Arthur Kill men were undefeated; it even mentioned that my school was beaten a few weeks ago on our second trip into the jail.  The Times article did get most of the flavor of the evening, but I think it failed to mention a few key points.

First, it completely ignored the team’s coach Marie Ellner, a retired Staten Island school teacher who volunteers a significant amount of time to helping the team with the rules and format of the debate as well as researching the issues and formulating their arguments.  Marie can also be a stern disciplinarian for the team, like when she harshly admonished them for trying to convince me that we had agreed to longer time periods for arguments when no such agreement had occurred.  I had said that I didn’t care if they felt they needed to extend the time to be more comfortable but Marie would have none of it: “No way! They know the rules, ” she interjected, “Don’t let them pull the wool over you Oscar.” The time limits stuck and Marie literally shooed these four hardened men back to their team’s table with a wagging finger.

Second, the warden, Superintendent Dennis Breslin, should also get credit for not only allowing this group to be formed and to allow extra access to the library for them, but also for providing tremendous support for the debate in general. The debates are held in the evening, in the large visiting room, long after regular visiting hours have ended. The room is set up with two long tables on either side of a large podium, with name plates for each o f the debaters in front of their assigned seats.  A table for the judges and two audience seating sections (one for other inmates and one for observers and guests) give the appearance of a formal event that could be held in any college or law school, if not for the fact that one section of the audience were all wearing green jumpsuits.  You have to understand that the keys to prison life are  “routine” and “procedure.”  Any break in the rigid schedule and life of the inmates is usually severely frowned upon. So this whole set-up just throws a wrench into the ordered life of the institution.  Breslin allows it -indeed encourages it- because he thinks its important to show the men inside and the world outside that you can run a medium security facility without treating the inmates like cargo.  He has told me that the goodwill he gets back from the men he oversees alone would make the event worthwhile for him.

The topics for the debate are usually in the area of criminal justice. The most recent one I was involved in  asked whether it was constitutional to  sentence someone under the age of 17 to life in prison without parole.  The US Supreme Court had recently decided that the death penalty should not be applied to those under 17 and the Court is expected to decide the life without parole issue this term at some point.  My team argued the “Yes it is constitutional” side and the Arthur Kill team argued the “No.”  But even though they took that side, agreeing to argue this issue meant that these men had to be ready to expose themselves to hear some harsh arguments about crime and punishment.  In preparing for the debate, I had told my team to look right at the other side when they said statements like “Some people will never change and must be locked away forever for the safety of society.” There were many more such declarations leveled at the inmates that I am sure were hard for them to hear voiced.  They took it in stride and fired right back at us, showing no reaction.

Some of my team were initially upset that all three judges had voted for the inmates. They felt that the inmates, while clearly well-prepared and polished in their presentations,  relied too much on emotional appeals and not enough on the law and that they did not do enough to combat our strongest arguments.  But as we were walking to our cars in the parking lot after the very congenial meet and greet after the debate, I told them to stop and turn back for a last look at the prison.  As they stared at the barbed wire fences and ominous guard towers, I told them that even though these were trusted inmates who had merely been allowed to sit a table, stand at a podium and then shake our hands in the presence of the warden; deputy warden and countless guards, the institutional protocol required that they submit to  full cavity searches before they were returned to their  8 x 10, two men cells for immediate “Lights Out.”  They would have to wait for the morning to discuss their victory and recap the debate.  Meanwhile, we were headed out to a Manhattan restaurant for food and drinks.  So who were truly the winners?

The benefit to the inmates is obvious,  but my students have always been equally positively impacted by participating in this debate; it has forced them to examine their beliefs about criminal justice and incarceration, for one.  It has also made them realize that hard and fast rules don’t always result in equal justice as they see the predominantly minority crowd of inmates at the table and in the audience. It has also made them feel blessed for the opportunities afforded to them.  So its a win-win regardless of the result for all involved. While every time  the inmates focus on a different topic, really each session inherently also asks the same question: Is it worthwhile to have programs such as these that allow the incarcerated to have an opportunity for intellectual exercise? The answer to that question is  a resounding “Yes!” and as to that topic there can be no debate.

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