Rikers Debate Digest

April 4, 2018

Dear RDP Volunteers & Friends,

       This is the April 4, 2018 edition of the Rikers Debate Project Activities Digest, meant to keep everyone in the organization informed about and involved with all of our ongoing, exciting programs.


Alex Taubes RDP Board Secretary

Executive Director’s Announcements

  • Fundraiser Date Set: Our next RDP fundraiser will be held the evening of Monday, June 4th at Davis Polk and Wardwell in Midtown Manhattan with the topic “People in prison ought be paid minimum wage for their labor.” Please email Josh if you are interested in helping plan the event. 

  • Fellowship Applications to Open Next Week: This month, we will be soliciting applications from our formerly incarcerated alums to hire our second RDP Fellow, who we expect to start work in mid-May.

  • DOC Confirms ACLU Public Debate at EMTC: The Department of Correction has approved June 18th as the date for our next Rikers Debate. Though we are still waiting to hear back from DOC’s Public Information office about media coverage, we expect the topic to be “Pre-Trial Incarceration Should Be Abolished”

Josh Morrison, Executive Director, Rikers Debate Project

Upcoming Events

  • Petey Greene / RDP Debate: “What’s In a Name?” April 25, 3:30pm-5pm. Join us at NYU’s Kimmel Center Room 405/406, 60 Wash. Sq. So., New York, NY 10012, for a timely debate on political correctness and naming conventions in criminal justice. Contact Charlotte for more information.

  • Fellowship Program Fundraiser: June 4, 2018, at 7-10PM, at Davis Polk & Wardwell, 450 Lexington Ave, NY.  

  • We have set a time and place for our fundraiser with the goal of raising $30,000 toward our fellowship program. The fundraiser will feature a public debate. Our first fellow, Camilla, has been leading our organization’s advocacy efforts (at the candidate forum and at our inaugural lobby day as well as other activities) and will be a guest of honor at the event. If you are interested in serving on the host committee or otherwise getting involved, please contact Josh for more details.  
  • ACLU / RDP Public Debate: Great news! The ACLU and DOC have reached agreement on a date for our next public debate at Rikers Island. The debate will be held Tuesday, June 18th with Tuesday, June 25th as a backup. Save both dates just in case. The ACLU has assigned two people to work on the event with us, demonstrating their excitement and commitment to this debate. Please get in touch with Ashley if you want to get involved!

Class Updates

EMTC (March 23, 30): Class on 3/23 started with a frank discussion on the current state of pharmaceutical regulation in the US. Students were quick to point out the Martin Shkreli incident as profiteering in the pharmaceutical industry, but were less aware of Merck’s efforts to supply enough drugs to cure river blindness in many parts of the world. We then transitioned to the debate technique of the class, structuring arguments in the A-R-E format. It was a good refresher for our veteran students, and a great introduction to debate for our newer ones. Students were asked to formulate an argument for or against pharmaceutical regulation in the US and present in front of the class.

Class on 3/30 had an excellent start as we finally received our long-awaited call-down list! We were also excited to welcome several new students and began by reviewing the core components of an argument: the assertion, reasoning, and evidence (“ARE”). The new students quickly grasped the concept and applied it to topics of their choice, from whether television is good for children to whether prosecutors have too much power. We then transitioned to the topic of the day, performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Almost every student opposed steroid use, emphasizing that it is cheating and dangerous for athletes’ health. But they embraced the challenge of arguing against what they believed, noting that enhanced sports would be more entertaining and that individuals should have the right to decide what to put in their bodies.

GRVC (March 24, 31): Josh and Angela held a productive meeting with representatives at DOC last week to address attendance problems at GRVC. Proposed solutions were discussed and will be brought to the administration of the facility for further discussion and approval. 

Unfortunately, the March 31 class at GRVC was canceled due to a facility lockdown. However, the GRVC team is happy to report that – despite the attendance problems we have been having – the March 24 class was a huge success. Held on the same day as the national “March for Our Lives” events protesting the lack of gun control action in the wake of the Parkland school massacre and other mass shootings, the team at GRVC took the debate in another direction: should 16 and 17 year olds be given the right to vote? The abstract, thought-provoking, and oft-debated topic of Demeny voting was also discussed.

The crux of the class was a reflection – by both students and teachers – on their lives as high schoolers, engendering insightful responses drawing from the debaters’ personal experiences. As first-time volunteer Max Lecar wrote:

A consensus emerged from discussion that as sixteen and seventeen year olds many of the participants were acutely aware of prominent political issues affecting their own lives and had had to bear responsibilities within their families well beyond what may be considered typical for a teenager. Yet, a quite complex approach to the problem at hand prevailed in characterizing the substance of the discussion. Dwight, equipped with a copy of Orwell’s 1984 even quoted at length a passage from its content discussing how one might be cognizant enough of the contours of an issue to “know when to laugh and know when to boo” but purposely remain ignorant of its substance as a means of passive resistance. This spontaneous punctuation of the group’s discourse was highly relevant to the subject at hand and accorded to its agent the applause of the students, volunteers, and officers in attendance.

The GRVC Team hopes to get itself back on track, to continue these insightful discussions, by overcoming the recent issues surrounding attendance..

Rosie (March 24, 31): The debaters at Rosie, too, were focused on the action and passion of recent times, the ongoing movement for gun control and its opposition, the gun rights movement. The classes on both March 24 and March 30 were focused on the particularly controversial subject of arming teachers in schools to guard against mass shootings. Students’ opinions were not all in favor or against the idea and both classes involved spirited student debates with both constructive speeches and rebuttals. Attendance was an issue at the March 31 class because of an alarm during the call-down period but the small class size (four students) did not prevent an engaging and enlightening debate session.

VCBC (Spanish Class) (March 24, 31): Attendance has been very variable for the Spanish class at VCBC. In past weeks our class size has fluctuated between 12 and 1, and we’re working with our contact at the facility to understand why this might be. On 3/31 we only had one student, though he is particularly engaged and we still had a great discussion about evaluating different types of evidence. We distributed topic packets about vegetarianism and will be covering that topic this coming weekend. 

Dorsey Run (Washington, DC) On 3/24, Rikers-DC started its second debate course (note: while we have operated since October 2017, we had to get clearance to post anything, but finally did and are happy to be up and running!) Round 2 - the new and improved course - started with a detailed syllabus, plans for an in-house and public debate round, and 14 weeks of lessons. 

We had several returning students and a few new faces. This week’s particularly relevant resolution was “social media is bad for society.” Instructors David Yin and Sam Dunkle teamed up with veteran students for an intense and engaging demo round. While administrative kinks prevailed, such as notifying students that class was in session, students remain enthusiastic and are especially eager for the public rounds. We are very much looking forward to another jam-packed, fun-filled session!
 David Yin, Kat Hyland, Adam Drucker and Sam Dunkle are leading our Washington, DC chapter of RDP. Get in touch with Sam to get involved with planning a possible upcoming public debate!

** Orientation (April 1):** Orientation was held on April 1st at Davis Polk, hosted by Lexie Filkins and Pat Andriola. There were six students. Contact Pat if you’re interested in attending our next orientation on May 12! 

Reentry Update

Although the Rikers Debate Project is always excited to welcome our students home, we never forget about our alums who are imprisoned upstate. We currently have 5 teams of volunteers helping former students prepare for their parole hearings, including one hearing that occurred this week. We have 14 more former students who are up for parole this year and could use your help. Typical tasks include reviewing personal statements, gathering documents, and writing letters of support. A successful parole hearing means fewer years in prison, and assistance with parole preparation increases the chance of success from 1 in 5 to 1 in 2! If you are interested in getting involved, please contact Caitlin.

<The next issue of the Rikers Debate Project newsletter will be released next week, with a Spanish-language version to follow.>

Expansion Update

No new updates except that our first class at York (Niantic, CT) will be held on Saturday morning (4/7)!   Thank you to Eva Marie Quinones, Sylvia Kang, Michael Abraham, Max Lecar, Jenny Tumas, and Marco Fiallos, our inaugural volunteers for the York class, and a special shout-out to Ann Manov and Alex Taubes for helping this chapter get off the ground!   If you’d like to get involved in expansion initiatives in Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, or any other regions of the US (or know anyone who would), please reach out to Pat.

More news & notes