Penitentiary Debate

Written by

For the second year in a row, Whitman partners with the Washington State Penitentiary to hold a formal debate.

On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. But should the right to stay anonymous online be absolute? In the face of compelling arguments from an unusual mix of inmates and college students, it's hard to say.   

“What we have in prison is kind of a generic internet,” said Washington State Penitentiary inmate Robinson Edwards. “Sometimes we’re held back because the news is old. But we get information from them.”

He gestured toward the circle of Whitman students around him.

Robinson was one of about a dozen WSP inmates who, as part of their academic pursuits, participated this semester in the Prison Debate Program, partnering with Whitties to learn the ins and outs of formal debate. The internet-anonymity resolution marked the second collaboration of this kind between Whitman and the prison.

“In the last five years, there have been a lot of programs,” WSP Superintendent Don Holbrook said, “but inmates want to be engaged in this one. That’s a big deal.”

The Prison Debate Program began in 2012 at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Washington, in partnership with educators from Washington State University. WSP, which contracts with Walla Walla Community College to provide education to inmates including an Associate of Arts degree option, joined the program with Whitman College in 2013.

WA-ST-PENITANTIARY-DEBATEThe incarcerated debaters are all students in the WSP programs, inmates in the minimum security area of the prison and, according to Holbrook, “close to the door” – they have four years or fewer left to serve.  

Whitman College Director of Debate Kevin Kuswa, working closely with WSP educator Reid Helford, has led 12 participating Whitties to the WSP several times over the course of the semester to meet with inmates. Together, the students – most of whom are on Whitman’s debate teams – decided on a topic for the debate, wrote arguments and practiced responses.

“We heard that last year's debate was the most fun thing of all time,” said Margaret Rockey '16. “There's more participation from Whitman College this year.”

Helford, a sociologist whose teaching responsibilities include giving lessons cell-to-cell in the prison’s solitary confinement area, said that the collaboration between Whitman and WSP gives members of both communities the opportunity to gain perspective.

For the inmates, part of the purpose of academic study is to “give them an identity as college students,” Helford said, as opposed to “the [identities] that weigh them down – to give them an identity as something other than ‘The Bad Guy.’ Many are as bright as Whitman students; we see them for who they want to be.”

The numbers bear out the utility of this approach. According to Denise Kammers, academic coordinator at Walla Walla Community College and arranger of logistics for the penitentiary debate, the recidivism rate for inmates who earn their A.A. degrees while behind bars is just 5 percent, much lower than the general state-wide rate of almost 30 percent.

“The DOC likes us to target inmates most likely to recidivate; they get priority [for academic classes], then whoever wants in… we’re able to get pretty much all of them,” Kammers said.

“It makes them feel normal to have the opportunity to interact with [non-incarcerated] students.”

The debaters sat at long tables in the front of WSP’s mural-covered visiting room, facing an audience of more than 50: visitors from Whitman and the Walla Walla community, plus others involved in the academic program at the prison. The inmates in the crowd were identifiable by their khaki uniforms.

Opening remarks from Helford, who said he thought of himself as Kuswa’s “assistant coach,” congratulated the debaters on the many hours of hard work they had put in.

WA ST PENITANTIARY DEBATE, prison guardAn initial poll of the audience indicated that about three quarters were against absolute internet anonymity. In turn, the two teams sent members to the podium with prepared introductions, then main arguments, then cross-examinations. Each side began rebuttals by first recognizing the other team as “my esteemed colleagues.”

Arguments in favor of the resolution included appeals to privacy and national security; arguments against it covered bullying and cyber-crimes. Finally, the debaters took questions from the audience. A follow-up poll showed that a few listeners had changed their minds following the arguments. Neither team was the clear winner.

Inmate Anthony Lewis was impressed by the proceedings. “I didn’t think I was interested in debate, but I enjoy the sociology of it,” he said. “You get to see different viewpoints about the world and consider things you take for granted.”

Lewis, whose academic interests are largely health-based, said watching the debate will be helpful in forming an argument about the effect of advertising on obesity, an assignment in his nutrition class.

Another incarcerated student echoed this sentiment. He’ll soon be engaging in a “nature vs. nurture” debate in his psychology class and said he got especially good tips from the debaters about handling rebuttals: “how to be ready for them, to flip the information that they say,” he said.

According to Kuswa, this year’s debate was a success. “It went well. We were a little nervous about asking for questions from the audience, but we didn’t want it all to be scripted,” he said. “The topic held its own, wasn’t one-sided; there was a good balance.”

Kuswa said he hopes to continue the collaboration in the future.

“Ultimately, I think this is just about [Whitman and WSP students] getting to know each other,” he said. “It’s a way for our students get perspective – to get outside the Whitman bubble.”