About Us

The Rikers Debate Project (RDP) teaches competitive debate skills — including communication, conflict resolution, and public citizenship—to students held in Rikers Island jail.

RDP’s modular curriculum helps our students advocate for their political interests, resolve conflicts peacefully and productively, and empathize with a variety of perspectives.

Our debate classes pair lessons about argumentation and logical reasoning with discussions of contemporary civic and political issues.

Lesson goals are delineated for novice, intermediate, and advanced students, and we work hard to keep the RDP volunteer - student ratio small. Previous argumentation lessons include:

  • How to make an argument (a method connecting assertions, reasoning, and evidence)
  • What constitutes a “valid” and/or “sound” argument, and spotting illogical arguments and logical fallacies
  • Debate rebuttals, signposting, and seeing the round as a judge

The RDP classes study and debate issues that are relevant to the current civic and political moment. Topics are also generated by our students. Previous topics have included:

  • Felon disenfranchisement in New York State
  • Eliminating cash bail for low-income defendants accused of some crimes
  • President Trump’s Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States (also known as the “Travel Ban”)

A criminal record makes it hard to find a job. Communication skills are invaluable to overcoming this challenge. Our program will:

  • Make participants more confident, analytical, and articulate in job interviews.
  • Teach creative, analytical, and conceptual thinking through discussion of complex issues.
  • Instill a competitive and achievement-oriented mentality.

Rikers Debate Project volunteers include former college debaters, current young and mid-career professionals, and civic and public service leaders and practitioners. Click our 'get involved' tab to learn how to volunteer!

Our program is new and ambitious. Because we have true faith in the power of rational discourse to improve the world, we also have great expectations for what bringing debate across the criminal justice field can accomplish. We hope that by building the skills of self-advocacy and enabling a culture of healthy debate for students who are deeply entwined with criminal justice, we can both improve the procedure by which our society considers these issues and expand the set of voices that have a say in policy. We set high standards for ourselves and for our students. To meet them, we are constantly self-critiquing, evaluating and improving. We judge our work on the impact we have on our students and on the criminal justice field at large.

Where We Teach on Rikers Island

George R. Vierno Center (GRVC): The facility where the Project was founded, in early July, 2016. It is also where RDP hosted its first public debate, in October 2016, on the topic of whether individuals who are incarcerated should have the right to vote.

Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC): RMSC is the only jail on the island that houses women, and it has a current capacity of 2,017. Individuals are usually housed here for short terms while they await trial or to serve out a jail sentence of less than one year.

Eric. M. Taylor Center (EMTC): EMTC houses adolescent and adult men sentenced to terms of one year or less. Unlike the other jails on the island, EMTC is unique in that incarcerated individuals have been convicted, rather than just being detained.

Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC): VCBC, also known as "The Boat," is an 800-bed jail barge anchored off the shore of the Bronx near Hunts Point. VCBC is home to RDP's first and only debate class taught entirely in Spanish.

RDP has an active chapter in the Washington, D.C. area and as of Spring 2018 a new active chapter in New Haven, Connecticut. We are always looking to expand our programming. Shoot us an email if you would like to set up your own chapter!

Board Members

Angela Cai, Ashley Carrington, Mary Crippen, Matthew Moll, Josh Morrison, Justin Roberts, Caitlin Halpern, Ben Solomon

Meet our board here

Contact us

Email us at

Call us at 646-926-7606


If you’re interested in potential employment with the Rikers Debate Project, please email us a cover letter and resume to .

Equal Opportunity Employer: The Rikers Debate Project provides equal employment opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability or genetics. In addition to federal law requirements, The Rikers Debate Project complies with applicable state and local laws governing nondiscrimination in employment in every location in which the company has facilities. This policy applies to all terms and conditions of employment, including recruiting, hiring, placement, promotion, termination, layoff, recall, transfer, leaves of absence, compensation and training.