This Thursday, the Columbia Debate Society hosted a public debate with the Rikers Debate Project – a program teaching competitive debate skills to students held in Rikers Island jail – in Lerner 555. CDS members and Rikers Debate Project alumni teamed up along with a commentary from a panel of professors. Staff writer Lara Yener gives her two cents about how the event changed her life.

I had been looking forward to this event for over a month. As a Justice-in-Education program reject – I don’t have an SSN, which means the Department of Security can’t run a background check on me to assure themselves that I’m a Model Citizen – I thought this would be the closest I could get to volunteering within the criminal justice system this semester.

I walked into the bronze-lit room, panting, fresh out of my literature discussion section, and was able to snag a seat that gave me a good view of the scene. Each team consisted of one formerly incarcerated alum of the Rikers Debate Project program, and one Columbia student affiliated with the Columbia Debate Society. The issue to be discussed is  a hotly debated one today, giving the debate a relevant and urgent nature: “This house would abolish pretrial detention.”

The judges – two professors and a pastor – settled in to watch the tournament. It followed the structure of American parliamentary debates, with the two sides identifying with the Government and Opposition wings respectively. The formerly incarcerated Government speaker kicked off the debate, arguing passionately about how practices such as pretrial detention were destroying families, making citizens lose their jobs, and keeping them unfairly separated from loved ones. In one  stand-out quote from the Government, the RDP debater described the psychological standpoint and process of being subjected to pretrial detention: “No matter what, since the trauma is so severe, you’re going to end up pleading guilty.” Through touching examples and personal anecdotes, the first speaker from the Government made the point that pretrial detention was an “unfair mechanism that doesn’t support our constitutional rights.”

As the formerly incarcerated speaker from the Opposition took the floor, they drew attention to the “reasonable expectations of safety one must have from their system,” and that the main focus should be to “seek ways to make sure folks have access to treatment, education and job trainers through pretrial detention.” Giving many real-life examples of innocent people being detained for over hundreds of days and being subjected to prison violence, they challenged how truthfully the practice “innocent until proven guilty” was being carried out, and called upon the audience to focus on “what is most impactful and effective on society.” The Opposition also made the reverberating analogy that pretrial detention was the “mechanism that considered the victims and the families, and the promise of the system to provide safety to those who have been harmed.”

The debate section of the event was followed by an engaging Q&A with RDP alumni. Many audience members were highly enthusiastic about directing questions to the formerly incarcerated debaters, sparking a conversation about prominent matters such as the quality of educational programs within the criminal justice system, and the power and teachings of debate as a regular activity. “I’m an abolitionist and this shows the power of debate,” remarked one RPD alum, who’d just argued against abolishing pretrial detention as an Opposition speaker.

Another alum emphasized the ways in which debate had transferred to invaluable life skills for him, such as by teaching him conflict resolution and cultivating his leadership skills. “It really gave me the verbal confidence I needed to articulate what I felt I was capable of,” he added, drawing the topic of conversation to the hardships faced by formerly incarcerated citizens when re-entering the workforce.

“I don’t think the education system in jails should not only be supported more; I think it should be mandatory,” commented one RPD alum. “Your education is the only thing you have once your incarceration ends.” Many other alums showed their support for this statement by re-emphasizing the professional skills which they had developed through debate.

When a Columbia student asked,  “What do you think are the benefits of a debate program as opposed to more traditional education programs?” one alum responded,  “seeing the hope in their eyes when they learn about what’s going on outside, and the opportunity to be present in the moment.”

Upon request from a Columbia community member, the RPD alumni shared the “most influential piece of media” they’d viewed. Many alumni felt the need to separate their answers into two or three categories – pre-incarceration or during incarceration, and after. As titles like Long Walk to Freedom, Less Brown, See You At the Top mixed with names like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, I took a moment to reflect on what all this meant: having witnessed a debate so relevant and attuned to people’s needs, I welcomed the voice within challenging me to reconsider what I considered my “community.” Would I be proud of myself if, after I graduated, I realized I’d decided to live within the Columbia bubble for four years, failing to take action for what and who in New York City that bubble excluded?

Perhaps my favorite answers of the Q&A section came to the question of how the alumni handled the “constraints of debate,” such as short answer times, there only being two sides, etc. One alum pointed out how “the constraints of debate are what make you creative” (this was the same alum who had had to argue against abolition as an abolitionist in real life – it was also his first debate!). Another alum, who had come to participate in his second debate so far, said about debate: “You get back what you put in. I’ve gotten lazy about my opinions over the years, but seeing both sides of every issue is now prompting me to think and dig deeper.”

As the judges came back around and presented who they considered their winner – the Opposition, on the grounds that they were able to provide a more three-dimensional perspective – the atmosphere smelled less of the thrill of total victory and more of the mutual appreciation of having learned so much from each other.

As the night came to a close, Columbia and Rikers debaters alike congratulated each other, and CDS informed the big crowd about ways to volunteer with RDP. I truly hope that when I come back for a similar event, it’ll be as an active volunteer!

Rikers Debate Project Board via Selina Wang