The world’s best debate team may very well be a group of inmates at a maximum security prison in New York with no formal educations, or even internet access (inmates only have access to books in the prison library, and digital encyclopedias on the computers in the prison’s computer lab).
In 2015, inmates at the maximum security Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, went viral after defeating the Harvard University debate team. That came after the inmates beat nationally ranked debate teams like the University of Vermont and the U.S. Military Academy debate team at West Point. But their latest victory over the Cambridge University (UK) debate team is perhaps their most impressive.
Established in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debate team in the world, and has hosted numerous prominent speakers, like the Dalai Lama, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, President Ronald Reagan, and even contemporary figures like Jesse Jackson, Buzz Aldrin, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Some of its members include Huffpost founder Arianna Huffington and economist John Maynard Keynes.
To contrast, the maximum security inmates at in Napanoch (capacity 1100) don’t even have access to the internet, and only one of the three members of the prison’s six-year-old debate team even graduated from high school. 39-year-old Reggie Chatman, who is considered the leader of the team, was convicted of murdering a man in Rochester, New York when he was 17, and was sentenced to 25 years to life. Chatman has since earned his GED and is on his way to earning a Bachelor’s degree.
The maximum security inmates have only had a debate team since 2013. The Bard Prison Initiative was launched by Bard College undergraduates in 1999, after the crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 (originally written by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden) prohibited the use of Pell Grants for prison education. The Initiative has since helped inmates get 540 Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees, according to the Post. Inmates began asking for a debate team of their own, and finally got one in 2013.
When Cambridge accepted the maximum security inmates’ invitation to debate them, the topic assigned for them to debate was nuclear disarmament. While Cambridge was proposing the concept of “Nuclear Zero,” or a world without nuclear weapons, the inmates argued that a few nuclear states dictating who could and who couldn’t have nuclear weapons amounted to elitism and imperialism.
“Let’s say we accept their argument that there is a path to Nuclear Zero,” Chatman said. Since these technologies are already accessible, he argued, we cannot ensure that state actors will not take advantage of them.
“And so,” Chatman said, “in denying ‘othered’ sovereign states the right to acquire nuclear weapons, the elitist nuclear apartheid advocates for the true axis of evil, which is imperialism and the proliferation of global inequalities.”
…About 20 minutes later, the lead judge, Camara Hudson, stepped up to the microphone to announce the winner. She congratulated both teams on their performance.
Chatman’s eyes widened in his chair.
“At the end of the day,” Hudson said, “ . . . We gave the win to the proposition team, Bard College.”
The story of the inmates’ success comes in the midst of a national conversation about whether or not prison inmates — even felons at maximum security facilities — should have the right to vote. Senator Sanders has made that a part of his campaign platform, though rising star Pete Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, Indiana — has come out against the idea of incarcerated inmates having the right to vote.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.