World maps and math posters line the walls of the classroom where students gather for lectures every Tuesday evening. Computers sit on the tables, making the room comparable to any middle or high school classroom. Outside the classroom, however, are barbed wire fences and steel doors.
The students inside are men serving time at the Idaho State Correctional Center and are taught by volunteers from Boise State’s speech and debate team, the Talkin’ Broncos. In September 2015, Boise State alumna Lauren Bramwell began working on what would become the Prison Debate Initiative, a program in which Broncos teach these men how to debate.
Beyond basic debate skills and techniques, however, the volunteers teach students self-advocacy and help them regain their voices, which are often lost during their time in prison. Marginalization and the lack of autonomy in the prison environment can cause this silencing. Bramwell, who personally benefited from the confidence that comes with debate, wanted to spread it to underrepresented populations.
“What is most incredible is that my personal testimony of the power of this activity isn’t unique to just me—debate is a real source of empowerment for so many people in the forensic community,” Bramwell said. “Recognizing this activity’s transformative value, I wanted to share its source of empowerment with folks behind the wall.”
That sentiment, as well as injustices in the criminal justice system, led to the Prison Debate Initiative. Bramwell’s first high school debate topic was the death penalty.
“I learned about the arbitrary nature of the death penalty and how pursuance of the death penalty is often dependent on the county in which the crime is committed,” Bramwell said. “I learned about the commonality of improper representation for folks convicted of a capital crime. The topic hit a real nerve with me and I’ve since learned the death penalty is just one issue in a whole myriad of injustices that lace our current criminal justice system.”
Amy Arellano, the current director of the Prison Debate Initiative, sees correctional facilities as a vital place to start reforming the criminal justice system. Arellano and the volunteers focus on teaching students skills that will help them advocate for themselves and engage in civic discourse.
“We teach different advocacy skills, then they practice their speaking and critical thinking skills, and then we run debates with different topics,” Arellano said. “Last night they were debating whether qualified immunity should be limited for police officers. We try to do topics that will engage them and engage the criminal justice system so we can be more critical of what’s going on.”
Jacob Miller was a student in the inaugural class, and has since returned to Boise State to complete the one course necessary to obtain his Bachelor of Arts. Miller–whose name has been changed to protect his privacy–recently decided to add a second degree, a Bachelor of Science. He is expecting to graduate with both in May 2018.
Miller saw the Prison Debate Initiative as an opportunity to escape his environment, if only for a few hours a week.
“The atmosphere in a prison is depressing and even more so for any person who considers themselves to be an intellectual,” Miller said. “The qualifications needed to apply were on a flyer in my dorm and I thought I had a chance to be around people who wanted to use their minds for something–an anomaly.”
Surrounded by the negative aura of the prison, Tuesday evenings were a welcomed serenity for Miller. Engaging in conversation and building relationships with the Broncos contrasted the harsh reality of prison life.
“(We’re) still being treated like (criminals) in an educational setting,” Miller said. “They do the same thing during medical treatment. We are constantly put in ‘our place’ as a criminal. (We) can’t be left alone in a room, (are) not trusted with a pencil, can’t be expected to tell the truth–the list goes on.”
Because the program is based on intellectual growth, it offers a space for students like Miller to talk and learn about subjects they may not be able to otherwise. Luke Yeates, a volunteer for the Prison Debate Initiative, said the nature of the program allows them to tackle difficult topics, which the students meet with enthusiasm.
“Because we’re not a religious group, our discussion can be more broad and that allows a wider discussion and people feel comfortable,” Yeates said. “You get to see personal expression of thought and idea from (the students), which you may not get in other areas, or it may not be something that is common.”
Yeates, a graduate student teaching communication at Boise State, contrasted the prison’s class environment with a traditional college classroom. The Idaho State Correctional Center, he claims, has more enthusiastic students than the University.
“I can tell you, now that I have an official classroom, the responses you get from lectures in the prison are almost what you would ideally want in a regular classroom,” Yeates said. “I have sat in classrooms where the response from my classmates is just dead. There’s nothing to it. They don’t answer questions and they’re not engaged. This is almost polar opposite–you can ask a question and you’ll get 10 hands and people who have thoughts.”
Janice Witherspoon, another volunteer with the Prison Debate Initiative, attributed this engagement to the subjects covered in the class.
“I think that we bring something new to talk about and to learn,” Witherspoon said. “Access to education is limited and stimulating conversation is hard to come by when you are surrounded by the same people. I feel as though we bring new things into the prison, like opportunity for growth.”
This interest and enthusiasm has only benefited the program, which has nearly doubled in size since its inception. The first class had 12 students–eight of whom graduated from the program. This year, there are nearly 30 students and the program now occupies two rooms rather than one.
The program runs from September to May, with a commencement ceremony at the end. There, a mock debate is held and students are encouraged to invite their friends and family to watch. Miller, whose friends and family don’t live in Idaho, still enjoyed the reprieve provided by the event.
“The graduation was nice,” Miller said. “It was the first time I had been in the visiting area. We could mingle with the visitors, and for an hour and change, we were regular people again–that is until we had to strip naked to get searched before going back to our units.”
For those who do have loved ones nearby, the culminating event is a chance for the students to demonstrate their knowledge and growth, according to Arellano.
“Seeing them get so excited to share with their families how they’ve grown over the year, then seeing their families tear up and see them empowered and growing intellectually is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of (the program),” Arellano said.
Students typically debate with a member of the Talkin’ Broncos and pride themselves in competing at a collegiate level, according to Yeates. He recalled a student who was profoundly moved after debating in front of his children, seeing the pride in their eyes.
Yeates said the culminating event demonstrates the transformation students experience in the program.
“You see goals and aspirations being thrown around in there when (the members) talk about what they want to do, that you didn’t hear before,” Yeates said. “The world seems wider and brighter.”