Prison Debate
Logan Emlet ’14 helps inmates go through one last read-through of their note cards before the debate.

An innovative debate program brings the misson of the liberal arts to inmates by focusing on moral reasoning and self-awareness.

By Edward Weinman

As the Whitman students walk through the prison metal detector, the veteran corrections officer reminds them to rid their pockets of cellphones, keys and valuables. A first-year student who suffers from allergies is stopped and asked to offload all but one dose of his antihistamine meds.

Then Emma Newmark ’17 shuffles clear of the metal detector without setting it off. Newmark remembers that when she first entered the Washington State Penitentiary she thought all the prisoners would be dressed in orange jumpsuits, hunched over on cots, crowded into small, dank cells.

“I imagined it to be like the movies,” Newmark said. “But everyone we met was friendly, well spoken and articulate.”

She said the inmates taking part in the program were taking classes and working for their education.

“They are committed,” she said. “It’s inspiring to me.”

The inmates Newmark met are working toward degrees. They applied to be part of a prison debate team that over the course of a few months teamed up with Whitman debaters to deliberate over whether federal and state governments or private corporations should run the massive U.S. prison system.

Kevin Kuswa, Whitman’s director of debate, organized the program at the Washington State Penitentiary, located on the outskirts of Walla Walla. Kuswa partnered with Walla Walla Community College. Their penitentiary debate program modeled Washington State University professor Johannes Wheeldon’s program at Coyote Ridge Correction Center in Connell, Wash. Wheeldon has used debate as a means to promote critical thinking and reflection among inmates.

“The prison is a big part of Walla Walla,” Kuswa said. “Many students are interested in what happens behind the prison walls. Debating is one of the best ways to work with the prisoners without treating them like they are objects of study or in a zoo.”

Not the crime of the century

As a philosophy major, Logan Emlet ’14 spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating recidivism. He went into this project thinking the U.S. penal system was a prison-industrial-complex and practicing debate with the inmates validated his beliefs that our prisons need reforms, because inmates are more than just statistics.

“For the past four years, I’ve seen the prison all lit up from the wheat fields, so I wanted to know more about it,” Emlet said.

“The project confirmed my suspicion that the people in here are human, intelligent and have voices that are not being heard. Hopefully this debate will give them a voice, because it’s important to show that the inmates are people, even if they no longer have voting rights.”

Ken Sortland is one such inmate. He said he’s serving 56 months out of an 84-month sentence for burglary, what he termed “not the crime of the century.” He has less than a year left on his sentence. Knowing he’s a short-timer, the well-spoken Sortland was eager to work with the debate team – so eager, in fact, that at one of the first meetings, he showed up with 20 pages of handwritten notes on the topic of private versus public prisons.

“It’s been a great opportunity for us to socialize with intelligent students. Lots of these students will become lawyers and politicians, and they will now look at prisoners as human beings and have a more positive opinion on inmates, which is good, because they are going to be in leadership positions.”

Sortland says he’s an A-student on his way to earning an associate’s degree from Walla Walla Community College. He’s not bragging about his grades, though. As he noted, prison is an ideal place to be a student.

“Some inmates spend all their time in the weight room. I spend my time in the books.”

Even for those inmates not scheduled for early release, the debate project served as a way for them to forget that they were prisoners, at least when the Whitman students visited.

“I was nervous when the students first came out. I thought I’d get tongue-tied,” said Shawn Joyner, whose large presence seems out of place in the room chosen to hold the final debate. Adorned with maps and cartoonish murals, the room feels more like a fifth-grade classroom than a prison.

“I want to thank the students. During the debate, I felt like a human again.”

Repeat offender

The students and the prison debaters shared an easygoing rapport. In between sessions, and even before the final debate started, they’d mingle as if at a party, some practicing their arguments for the debate, others jawing back and forth about sports, specifically college football.

Except for the fact that the inmates were dressed in white T-shirts and khaki pants (WSP prison garb) and were much older than the students, outsiders might be forgiven for thinking this was just a group of friends socializing.

However, one ever-present fact meant they could never truly be friends. At the end of each session, the students left, and those living their days and nights behind bars remained locked up.

“I hope the inmates benefited from the debate. I hope the project helped them, and that we do another debate next year,” Newmark said.

“But the reality is that the students and the inmates are just people passing each other.”

Mark Strickland is one of those prisoners Newmark has passed. Strickland looks like an inmate from the movies. Tattoos cover his arms, one is needled beneath his eye, and his scraggly, gray hair hangs long. Different from the movies, though, Strickland says he’s earning a 3.9 G.P.A.

“I decided to go to school here in prison, because I decided that I’m going to be 50 no matter what. So I might as well be educated,” Strickland said.

He has a college-aged daughter, so mingling with these youthful students empowered Strickland. It was a revelation, because the debate project liberated him, not from these prison walls, but from his life-long perception of himself.

“I’ve learned I’m not as stupid as I thought I was.”

However, Strickland is a product of recidivism. A repeat offender, he said this is the fourth time he’s been locked up at this very facility. He knows that despite the students’ worthwhile volunteer work, there is no guarantee the lessons he’s learned will keep him from returning to the prison for a fifth time.

“I hope I’ll be able to continue my education. I hope it will keep me away from this place. But, you know, lots of times we are the cause of our own destruction,” he said.