By Miceal Munroe-Allsup
Members of the Lewis & Clark Forensics Debate team, one of the largest and most successful teams in the Northwest, recently participated in a tournament hosted by Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) along with 12 college teams from states such as Kansas, Idaho and California, and four teams from OSP itself.
The members of the OSP teams were Adults in Confinement (AICs), a term that LC tournament participant Basil Hawley ’19 says the OSP participants asked to be called instead of ‘inmates’ or ‘prisoners.’ LC’s forensics department director, Joseph Gantt, taught a free eight-week course over the summer for AICs. This was his first summer teaching the course at OSP which introduces the fundamentals of debate and includes practice rounds, but for most of the OSP students, this was their first official tournament.
“It’s part of a larger program designed to improve communication skills inside the walls, but also for when people eventually get out — communication skills for whatever’s next,” Gantt said. “I was really impacted when an OSP student reported that they (attributed) the success of their petition to have a policy changed inside the prison to what they learned in the course.” The program, called Capital Toastmasters, is a speaking club at OSP, and the debate classes and this tournament are a part of it.
Gantt said that promoting debate within prisons forces participants to examine multiple sides of an issue, as competitors are assigned a side to argue for, rather than choosing to argue for whichever side fits their views. Most OSP residents are never forced to do this in the way most debaters are. Argumentation based on logic is also an alternative way to resolve problems in a nonviolent manner.
Hawley added that the OSP teams were very excited and extremely gracious, making excellent and convincing arguments. In fact, Gantt said that an OSP team has won the tournament three out of the last four years. The tournament’s chosen topics include themes from current news to topics that are particularly relevant to the OSP students. This year, the topics included Trump foreign policy, publicly funded elections, plea bargaining, and solitary confinement.
“To talk about something so proximal to people in the room, who have been through the topic you are discussing is a very humanizing experience,” Hawley said. “It is one thing to discuss the issues with the prison-industrial complex, and it is another thing to be within the prison-industrial complex, interacting with people who affect it and are affected by it.”
Gantt said that often times, debates are comprised of participants who have roughly the same experiences, and the same privileged backgrounds.
“An event like this is a rare opportunity that allows people to hear arguments made in a different way, with different life experiences behind them, and it can be a huge educational experience for the college teams,” Gantt said.
“We know these things in the abstract but it means a lot more in a room full of AIC’s who all start hitting the tables in agreement,” Kate McDonagh ’20, tournament participant and part of the two-person parliamentary debate team currently ranking fourth in the nation, along with Mary Talamantez ’21. In debate tournaments, agreement is traditionally shown by slapping the tables.
When asked what are the primary points they would like the LC community to learn about this event, McDonagh and Hawley say they would like LC students to glean from hearing about this event are that all LC students could participate in this tournament. You do not have to join the debate team in order to participate.
“AIC’s just want to have the same privileges that they used to have, and took for granted,” Hawley said. “We are so fortunate to go to this college, and how many students who go here would view studying as a privilege? Ask anyone in OSP, and they would say it is a huge privilege.”