INMATE PROGRAMS/EDUCATION

“DEBATE CLASS – Day One (1/21 – class every Sunday)” by Jacob J. Gamet

Most of the usual suspects (“self-proclaimed” prison intellectuals) showed up for class. And unexpectedly, Denise, our class sponsor, showed up–with her student in tow. I can’t quite remember his name though. Denise is really bubbly and gung ho about debate. Her student, however, is relatively reserved but willing to participate, perhaps due to his mild stutter. But the class was genuinely polite and welcoming of him. 

Denise has taught a debate class every year (I think at UW) for 20-plus consecutive years. She also facilitated a debate at another prison (maximum custody), which, when I spoke with her, she said was very restrictive compared to our minimum custody facility. She said our facility is closer to teaching outside college classes in terms of materials allowed, supervised movement, etc. But still, we have cameras everywhere. So it’s not like no one’s watching “us” here. 

An inmate I know opened the class by introducing Denise and her student and explaining various aspects of debate. Here and there, Denise and her student joined in the discussion. She then took over and had us students participate in an improv exercise, where a claim is made, evidence is provided, and a conclusion is drawn (like a syllogism). The next person must stand and counter the previous person’s claim (or start a new one) and provide his own evidence and conclusion. 

We debated who’s greater at basketball between Lebron and Coby, why dogs and cats should–or not–be killed to feed the poor (eek! already happening in some places), and in jest I floated a randomly digressive claim about how I couldn’t hear what was being said in class because the guy sitting next to me (whom I knew) was grindng down very loudly on a piece of hard candy. Mind you: he encouraged me to present this claim.

He stood and responded by saying he’s (me) wrong because I don’t chew candy, I swallow it. Another student jumped in and said you might want to rethink your choice of words and started laughing. And the guy next to me was embarrassed and sat back down, subdued but a little irritated. I had to laugh because he put his foot in his mouth with that offhanded claim. lol. 

Another guy stood up and said that “race” doesn’t exist except as a social construct, which prompted a black activist-type student to challenge the claim with a 5-minute, point-by-point diatribe on racial atrocities in the media regarding race. When he finished, the guy next to me (loud chewer) asked Denise is there a time limit? The class erupted in snickers and open laughs. (We definitely have some interesting characters in our class.)

Later, Denise threw us into the debate fire and paired most of the class into four groups to perform a British Parliamentary Debate exercise (that she just taught us!) on why Washington state should set up tolls on numerous Interstate highways. I was paired with a guy to my left (whom I also know). I argued third, in support of the tolls. Our premise was that tolls raise revenue for state budgets. Opposition then claimed that tolls took money away from locals (but they didn’t specify how). I refuted by restating our “increased revenue” position, what the opposition said, and refuted with the claim that increased state budgets trickle down to local budgets and therefore they do benefit the locals.

As you can gather, debate really draws one’s underlying character to the surface.

I also learned that a Harvard debate class got trounced by prisoners in a prison debate competition. Wow! Denise said it wasn’t even close. I asked if she has any articles describing how that happened because that would be an interesting read. She said she’ll provide them to UBB (University Beyond Bars) administrators for students to read. 

Overall, the debate was energizing and spicy fun. We were given some handouts to read before next Sunday. The material is good stuff. I’m really digging debate. I’m excited for Week 2 (or Day 2) to roll around. Until then…

Jacob Gamet
DOC #883302

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1 reply »

  1. This class sounds excellent. I love a good debate. I teach and I recently got my students to debate on whether prisoners should be given the vote. It got really heated!

    Like

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