Norfolk Prison Inmates Revive Storied Debating Society

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The belief that prisoners can be rehabilitated through education and debate was the foundation on which the Norfolk prison rose in the 1930s. (Courtesy of the Department of Correction)
The belief that prisoners can be rehabilitated through education and debate was the foundation on which the Norfolk prison rose in the 1930s. (Courtesy of the Department of Correction)

The subject was nothing less than the future of the planet.

Inside a fortress of high walls, razor wire and guard towers, two teams were debating whether the United States should impose a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

"Resolved," announced the first debater, James Keown.

"Global climate change fueled by the unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is wreaking havoc on our planet," he said. "We can do better. We must do better."

As corrections officers watched closely, Keown and four other prisoners began the revival of the once-legendary debating society at the state prison known as MCI-Norfolk. Sharing the stage were five opponents from the Boston College debate team.

Through the windows of the old, high-ceilinged auditorium, light streamed onto the stage. In the house were a couple hundred inmates — and the ghosts of a prison past.

"We needed to bring back the Norfolk Debating Society," Keown said. "It’s been 53 years — 53 years [is] way too long."

Inmates come and inmates go, though the only way Keown and many other “lifers” will ever leave Norfolk is in a box. But the debate team has endured as legend. Indeed the belief that prisoners can be rehabilitated through education and debate was the foundation on which the Norfolk prison rose in the 1930s.

And, says inmate Alexander Phillips, it still offers transformation.

"It’s the ability to highlight our potential that we shouldn’t just be thrown away," Phillips said. "It’s amazing. Malcolm X was here. He was a debate member. Our record is, like, 144-8."

In his autobiography, Malcolm X called Norfolk "the most enlightened form of prison I have ever heard of."

He and his fellow debaters achieved their record against teams visiting from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, West Point, McGill and even the acclaimed Oxford University, whose undefeated 1959 string across America ended in Norfolk.

"It’s the ability to highlight our potential that we shouldn’t just be thrown away."

inmate Alexander Phillips

Now for its first debate against an outside team in half a century, Norfolk had invited Boston College’s Fulton Debating Society.

The BC students -- none of whom had ever been to prison before -- had recently beat Notre Dame in New York, and they had scored a win at West Point too. But this was an away game like no other.

Norfolk always plays at home. So the visitors had to pull their pockets out on their way in and submit to being searched, scanned and cleared before going through the mantrap and the clanging metal doors that announce you’re inside and under institutional control, which is the first priority of prisons.

Norfolk has 1,440 inmates. Four members of its debate team are lifers, three of them convicted of murders in the first degree. So for Ronald Leftwich, for instance, the world of possibility excludes parole, but includes debate.

"It’s an opportunity for us not to only bring back the Norfolk debating team," he said, "but it’s an opportunity for us to show the world that we’re more than what our prison sentences say we are."

Under the rules for this debate, the first speaker for Norfolk -- which was the “pro" team -- was followed by Kelvin Lin, a speaker for Boston College, the "con" team.

“While we agree with our opponents that global warming is a serious problem, we strongly disagree that the carbon tax is a solution," Lin said. "Our first major point against a carbon tax is that it will not promote the development of clean energy technologies."

Like most of the BC debaters, Lin stuck to the podium and delivered his speech by reading it, sometimes too quickly. In contrast, most of the Norfolk team spoke without notes, untethered to the podium, and freed from the daily regimentation of prison life.

"It’s an opportunity for us to show the world that we’re more than what our prison sentences say we are."

inmate Ronald Leftwich

Inmate Daniel Throop even put on a surgical mask.

"After listening to our opponents ... we may have to check carbon dioxide levels in this auditorium today,” he said to the laughter of his audience. "Allow me to clear the air for you."

That brought admiring smiles from the BC debaters. But storing it up, debater Sean MacDonald would later use it to his advantage.

“If you want I can hand you back your surgical mask,” MacDonald said to Throop, “because under your plan, we’ll have dirtier air than we have right now!” The audience voiced its appreciation. 

Here was a display of the power and potential of debate and why inmate Keown says debate can change hearts and minds.

"Debate allows someone to see both sides of the issue," he said. "It allows you and forces you to take up someone else’s ideas. And so I think it allows us to move beyond just name-calling and argument."

In prison and out, debate makes it easier to navigate through conflict, its proponents say. A former president of the Chicago Board of Education was more succinct, saying, “If more people could argue their points, there would be less shooting on our city streets.”

George Vicente, who did shoot someone, doesn’t look old enough to have served 15 years. But he came when he was 17, convicted of second degree murder.

But because it was second degree, he can hope to get out. He’s graduated magna cum laude from the Boston University prison program, has committed his life to the church, and he says debate has enabled him to communicate more effectively.

"It has built my self-esteem," Vicente said. "It lets me know I can make myself clear to others and understand what they are saying to me."

Who would have thought, he reflected, that he would ever be discussing climate change and a carbon tax on emissions? But there he was on a Saturday afternoon, in a crucial role at the heart of the debate and, as he had told me earlier, he was ready for the game.

“There exists a consensus among expert economists,” he intoned, with a heavy emphasis on “e-con-o-mists." "In fact a 95 percent consensus that, and I quote, we should indeed put a price on carbon to curb the expensive costs of climate change."

In 10 powerful minutes, Vicente performed like a cross between a street preacher and "Hamilton," the Broadway show. Both hands were testifying. He was dropping his “g's," raising facts, pulling quotes, hitting the high notes, and lowering the low notes. He was delivering from memory and the audience was talking back.

“Other industrialized nations already have comprehensive carbon taxes in place: France, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany.”

He fired off their names, paused for effect, and demanded: “I thought we were the world leaders.”

Eighty years ago in the same auditorium, superintendents held both conviction and hope in the rehabilitation of prisoners. By the 1970s that belief was under attack from the doctrine that “nothing works” and by criminology studies suggesting prisoners cannot be reformed. That was the same era when the Norfolk debate society and a way of running prisons went into hibernation.

"We always see that pendulum swing back and forth," said Sean Medeiros, the current superintendent of MCI-Norfolk. "There’s always that ‘let’s lock them up and throw away the key' attitude. As correctional professionals we know that doesn’t work."

The last debater, to do the team closing for Norfolk, was Leftwich. He would speak for 90 seconds. Because of his crime, he will spend the rest of his life in MCI-Norfolk. When I suggested that because he would never get out, the talk of debate rehabilitating people does not include him, he objected.

"It does include me," he said. "When I’m educated and if I’m healthy on the inside I can help someone else on the inside who’s going to get out for sure. And you want people like me to help those people learn to go out and stay out and not re-victimize anyone else."

“The closer.” He laughed. “I tell these guys I’m the Michael Jordan. I get to take the last shot. If I hit, we win. If I miss, eh, we go home losers.”

He didn’t miss.

“Remember a storm is coming,” he warned the debate judges.

“Whether it’s 20 years from now, 50 years from now or 100 years from now,” he said as he began to point for effect. “You won’t be here. You won’t be here. You won’t be here.” Then in a passionate shout: “But our children will be here. And our children’s children will be here.”

The shot went in. The judges awarded 86.2 points to BC team, 86.8 points to Norfolk. The crowd roared. The ghosts and legends had come home.

Correction: An earlier version of this story called Daniel Throop by the first name David. We regret the error. 

This article was originally published on December 08, 2016.

This segment aired on December 8, 2016.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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