May 23, 2024
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The prison parley: How Binghamton brought debate to the incarcerated

Joe Schatz coaches debate to students from all walks of life

Joe Schatz usually teaches students on Binghamton University’s campus how to compete in speech and debate tournaments — a role that has led his team to victory at the Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Nationals tournament. Recently, though, his pupils at York Correctional Facility have been behind bars rather than desks.

“Debate gives people the tools to express themselves to audiences who are on the other end of the spectrum from them — to people who they must learn to be professional with,” said Schatz, who serves as Binghamton University’s director of speech and debate. “To teach people not to sell out their own voice all the time and to disagree with respect is incredibly useful to bring into prison spaces as well. I wanted to be able to provide that service to people who just happen to be incarcerated.”

Working with incarcerated intellectuals has been a project on Schatz’s schedule for several years, but it recently became a reality when he joined the National Prison Debate League (NPDL) on a friend’s advice. This non-profit organization connects expert coaches with available prisons to host a team for 12 weeks, who then compete against a roster of available teams.

The organization had its start two decades ago, when Daniel Throop, the organization’s later founder, was incarcerated himself in the Massachusetts State Prison system. Throop began working toward a vision of collaboration to bring debate to people like himself, and today is an experienced prison program developer, award-winning author and scholar. His dream came true when he officially formed the National Prison Debate League upon his release two years ago, becoming the executive director of the organization.

“Debate offers individuals who are incarcerated an outlet to channel and amplify their voices on public policy issues,” said Brittany LaMarr, the assistant director of the NPDL. “Our live-streamed debates shine a light on and create the platform for the demonstration of incarcerated persons’ intellectual ability and human capacity to engage in social diplomacy, thoughtful dialogue and meaningful civic engagement. The art of debate translates into positive conflict resolution skills, improved analytical thinking and public speaking skills.”

In September of 2023, Schatz was paired with York Correctional Facility in Connecticut, a maximum-security prison for women. Meeting via Zoom weekly, the team of incarcerated intellectuals quickly honed their skills.

“This first group was incredibly hard-working and thankful to an extent that I’m not used to having. Most undergrads are willing to take instructors and advisors for granted,” he said. “We’re here to serve them. But these women were very appreciative of me volunteering my time and helping work with them.”

Unlike some university students, Schatz said that the incarcerated individuals would always complete the assignments — even when they couldn’t be together. Housed in different cell blocks, several participants only saw each other in one-hour practice blocks.

“I realized that the same things that excite incarcerated individuals are the same things that excite my undergrads, as well as my middle and high school students that I work with,” he said. “They all like trying to figure out ways to express themselves. I saw a lot of the same arguments, of people thinking in similar ways. And I found that fascinating — it reiterated how much these are just people, they’re not just prisoners.”

Many of the incarcerated debaters, Schatz said, were quick to point out how much the program affected them and improved their days; based on this feedback alone, he hopes to expand. He plans to have 10 or 12 students next time, although this means some of the individuals who have already participated may not have a chance in the same way. Luckily, the team didn’t see it as a loss.

“They were all excited to get that experience to other people within the prison,” Schatz said. “They knew how much the experience gave them — the confidence to disagree with someone, to know that they could go up to a guard and express themselves in a way that would de-escalate the situation and have a greater likelihood of their voices being heard. At the same time, they do better at listening to what they’re being told, to figure out what they need to respond to and where wiggle room exists if there is some.”

Finally, the big day came: On Feb. 28, 2024, both Schatz and a team of Cornell debaters traveled to York, where a panel of coaches served as judges and the topic — whether the U.S. should adopt a nuclear no-first-use policy — was debated.

The York team debated for the “con” side, arguing that the U.S. should not change its calculated ambiguity policy — and won the debate on a 3-0 decision.

This spring season, nine prisons have participated in the debate circuit, and several more are scheduled to do so in the fall. New collegiate coaches continue to join the program, and the organization is committed to change both inside and outside the prison system.

“The societal perception of an incarcerated person as a prisoner, one irredeemable and to be cast off, can only be changed by allowing space for the general public to meet those within our prison systems and get to know them on a human level,” said LaMarr. “The NPDL creates a pathway for this by allowing anyone from the community to tune into these relevant policy debates and bear witness to the real humanity of incarcerated people.”

Schatz is adamant that it isn’t all about winning. Teaching people — whether middle schoolers, college students or incarcerated individuals — how to communicate effectively is its own reward. He says that using even/if statements and finding even one small thing to agree on, is the key to successful debate.

“It allows people to become more open to listening to you: Once you’ve shown that you’ve listened to them, they’re going to be a lot more receptive in day-to-day life. Even if it’s only a partial agreement, that little nod makes them more open to engaging with you in the parts that matter,” he said.

Schatz hopes that in the future, his Binghamton students will be able to join him as coaches or debaters against his NPDL teams, and that he can offer curriculum services in person at the Broome County Jail. In the meantime, he’ll keep with his tried-and-true, while infusing a bit of fun into the art form when he can.

“Outside of the competitive debate in my classes, my favorite debate game is ‘worst thing in the world’, where we argue about what the worst thing in the world could possibly be,” he said. “It could be younger siblings or nuclear war — I sometimes use Dots candy.”

To learn more about the NPDL, go to: https://npdl.org