News & Notes

Second Issue Of Newsletter Released

April 23, 2018

The Rikers Debate Project is proud to publish the second issue of the RDP Newsletter. You can download the Newsletter at this link: RDP Newsletter Issue 2

This RDP newsletter will soon be sent to nearly 200 current and former students at Rikers Island and other correctional facilities across the state. In addition to updates about our classes and events, the newsletter features impressive student writing and artwork.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the RDP Newsletter or any of RDP’s other activities in the area of Reentry, get in touch with Caitlin Halpern!

New Chapter In Connecticut

April 13, 2018

The Rikers Debate Project is proud to announce the founding of the York Debate Society, a new debate club formed at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT.

Classes are Saturdays from 8-11am. The chapter holds weekly meetings on Tuesday nights at 8pm in New Haven, Connecticut.

The new chapter was organized by RDP volunteer Ann Manov and board member Alex Taubes. The first class was Saturday, April 7, 2018, on the topic Resolved: we prefer a world where people cannot lie.

You can read more about RDP in Connecticut at the Yale Daily News website, which covered the first class and a recent planning meeting.

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.

Second Digest

March 7, 2018

Dear RDP Volunteers & Friends,

This is the second 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

Upcoming Fundraiser: We have started preparation for our next fundraiser event, to support our Fellowship Program. We expect it to take place in late May or early June and are hoping to host it at Davis Polk.

April MDC Class: Lexie Filkins has been working with Columbia’s Mia Ruyter to launch a 4-6 week debate class in April for women at MDC, a federal facility in South Slope, Brooklyn. The class would be on Tuesdays from 6-8 PM.

Upcoming Events

  • Lobby Day: RDP’s Inaugural Lobby Day will be held a week from today, March 14, in Albany, NY. The day will consist of meetings with more than a dozen legislators and two public events:
    • Public Debate (12pm-1pm): This will be held at the LCA Press Room, Room 130, Capitol, Albany, NY 12224. The topic will be a RDP classic: whether people who are incarcerated should have the right to vote.
    • Networking Happy Hour: (5pm-7pm): This will be held at “The City Beer Hall,” 41 Howard St, Albany, NY 12207. Enjoy casual drinks as you get to know RDP’s team, staffers, and legislators. You can download the flyer publicizing the event here. Contact Danny Li or Ashley Carrington for more details.
  • 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.

Zellnor Myrie Candidate Forum

On February 26th, the Rikers Debate Project held its first candidate forum, with Zellnor Myrie, a young lawyer who is running for State Senate in a district including parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Park Slope, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Mr. Myrie is challenging Senator Jesse Hamilton, who belongs to the IDC, a group of Democrats who vote with the Republicans in the New York State Senate. This has provoked much controversy, and Mr Myrie is running against Senator Hamilton to throw the Republicans out of power and create a unified Democratic majority.

“I was the moderator for the Zellnor Myrie town hall on the 26th. We presented Mr. Myrie with an assortment of questions on both criminal justice and housing related issues among others. His answers were genuine and articulate. He was personable and thoughtful in his responses. Although it was a small venue and audience, he gave us his full attention. He took every question, and helped us all understand complicated issues like the Independent Democratic Caucus, tenant and housing laws, and immigrant representation. I look forward to hearing from Senator Jesse Hamilton for a future event like this.”

- Fellow Camilla

Class Updates

EMTC (March 2): Unfortunately class was cancelled on February 23rd due to an event in the class space. Last Friday the students had a fascinating and passionate discussion about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We began by discussing “power mapping,” the process of selecting goals, targets, and tactics to create social change. Students then debated which leader was more effective, addressing challenging questions including whether violence can be an appropriate tactic and what the role of white people should be in racial justice movements. Volunteers then taught a lesson about cross-examination, which involves attacking an opponent’s arguments by asking questions rather than making statements. The class tied it all together with one student giving an eloquent speech in favor of Malcolm X, and other students grilling him.

GRVC (March 3): On Saturday at GRVC, Ann, Alex, and Josh taught a case about whether government employees should be required to pay fees to public employee unions. Despite only even-numbered housing units being escorted to class (for reasons that seemed unclear), attendance was strong— with ten students including one of our captains, Terrell, and aspiring captain Ramon, who brought five students with him. The debate lesson of the day was on evidence, and Ann led an exercise where the class reviewed select paragraphs to dig into how the authors used evidence to prove their case. In our debate at the end of class Ramon, Roberto, and Thomas were on gov (anti-union) and Alex G. and Luis were opp (pro-union). We thank Officer Polidor – a public sector union member himself – for contributing to the debate.

Overheard at GRVC “All my life I didn’t like standing in front of people. Now I like standing in front of people.” – longtime student

Rosie (March 3): Class at Rosie this week was shorter and smaller than expected due to a conflicting concert / “feast” that a majority of the regular class attended instead. However, our group of five volunteers and three students participated in a spirited discussion and informal debate round on the recent Supreme Court decision that detained immigrants do not need to be given periodic bail hearings. While the decision was difficult to support, we were able to push ourselves and the students to understand why such a decision might be made, and in turn to better understand the portion of our country that believes we should limit immigrant rights. We are excited to teach “Debate Basics” in next week’s class with a hopefully much larger group!

VCBC (Spanish Class) (March 3): this was our second week in a row of trying out the earlier class time (9am-11am, as opposed to our original slot of 1230pm-230pm). The first week of the earlier time we had 8 students; this past week we had 5. It seems that this is a more popular time with the students as it doesn’t conflict with weekly religious services at VCBC, but it’s still early on in the trial so we will see. This past week we covered the topic of universal basic income, which we thematically tied to the previous week’s topic of tests (drug tests/employment seeking) for recipients of welfare. Lots of spirited discussion even with a relatively small group.

Orientation (February 22): Our February 25th orientation class welcomed five new volunteers to the RDP family. Class was taught by Pat Andriola and Josh Morrison, and the new volunteers heard about the history of RDP, what we do, how they can get involved, and the amazing growth our students have shown. The volunteers all signed up to attend classes, and others have already volunteered to assist with non-teaching work. The next orientation will be April 1st at 12pm at Davis Polk, hosted by Lexie Filkins. People can reach out to Pat Andriola and/or Lexie Filkins if they’re interested in attending an orientation.

Reentry Update

The Rikers Debate Project is working hard to fully roll out our reentry program this year. Our biggest challenge has been finding a new co-host for our reentry class. We have reached out to Friends of Island Academy and the Osborne Association, and we would be grateful for any suggestions or connections you have! In addition, we have two volunteers, Lexie and Tripp, preparing the second issue of the newsletter, which we expect to release in March. We also have five teams of volunteers working to help former student prepare for upcoming parole hearings. Assistance with parole preparation increases the chance of success from 1 in 5 to 1 in 2, so we are excited about this new initiative. Other components of our reentry work will include a fellowship program, mentoring, and empowering involvement in activism. If you have any questions or ideas, or if you would like to get involved in our reentry program, please email Caitlin Halpern.

Expansion Update

Boston: We have submitted a proposal to Suffolk County House of Correction through our local volunteer, Sam Hocking. The facility is reviewing, but personnel there are optimistic about a class starting sometime this spring.

New Haven: RDP volunteer Ann Manov met with staff at York Correctional Institute, a women’s facility, in a very productive meeting and we expect to start a class there very soon. Stay tuned for a Connecticut Class Launch Solidarity Fundraiser on behalf of the Connecticut Bail Fund! Contact Ann Manov if you want to get involved with the fundraiser or the impending Connecticut class.

New Orleans: A NYC volunteer who has moved to New Orleans, Leland Whitehouse, is beginning to reach out to facilities in hopes of starting a class.

Washington D.C.: Our first and only class outside of New York is still going strong! Email Kat Hyland or David Yin for more information.

If you’d like to get involved in any of these initiatives (or know anyone who would), please reach out to Pat Andriola

April Update

April 1, 2017

After the excitement of March’s debate between the classes, volunteers introduced a new 14 week curriculum to help students build their debate skills from the ground up. Over the first month of the curriculum, students discussed lessons starting from “How to Build an Argument” to using A-R-E method, clash, and how to see through the eyes of a judge.

Towards the end of the month, we launched our third class at Rikers Island at the Eric M. Taylor Center - a facility which houses sentenced male adults and adolescents. The class immediately proved to be a hit, and got off to a running start discussing, what else, Trump’s immigration policy.

March Update

March 1, 2017

March was an exciting month for RDP, as we hosted our second public debate on President Trump’s immigration policies. The debate was held between two students from our female-only class at the Rose M. Singer Center and two students from our male-only classs George R. Vierno Center. The students went head to head debating the validity and ethics of the executive orders issues on immigration.

Special guest Samantha Bee helped judge, filming the debate for a segment on her show. Both teams were impressive as they discussed the intricacies and implications of the ban, but in the end the students from Rose M. Singer won the debate with their argument against the executive orders.

February Update

February 1, 2017

During this month the executive orders enacted via the new administration were put under a microscope by the students. Specifically, the debate on immigration provided the class with a lot to think about. Considering the leaps and bounds by which students have improved their skills, a public debate between GRVC and RMSC will be proposed sometime in the near future.

With the success of the GRVC and RMSC programs, the DOC has been broached with expanding the class to the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC). A 14 week module is being drafted, and will allow for easier implementation of new programs.

January Update

January 1, 2017

To kick off the New Year the topics chosen for debate bent towards the more abstract. Topics such as “Does God Exist?” and “Which Superpower is the Best?” were explored, challenging students and volunteers alike! Argument structure and refuting the opponent’s points were pushed as deciding factors when judging a debate. The students took these concepts to heart, incorporating numbering points and clash into their rounds.

The students continue to impress as they find ways to suss out the subtleties in arguments made during class. The use of Occam’s razor for both the government and the opposition during the “Does God Exist?” debate illustrates just how creative the students can be!

December Update

December 17, 2016

In the past six months, the Rikers Debate Project has grown to a devoted community of nearly fifty members, with more than a dozen volunteers and several dozen students in classes at two different correctional facilities. By teaching political expression and critical thinking to a community our society has largely left behind, we have clearly managed to capture something important and vital.

We, is hosting a party last Friday to celebrate our new debate class for female inmates at the Rose M Singer Center (RMSC) and also to make new connections with other organizations working in the fields of criminal justice reform and reentry.

November Update

November 29, 2016

We hope that you are enjoying the start of the holiday season. At the RikersDebate Project, we continue to teach competitive debate classes weekly to students living on Rikers Island Prison. Our organizations grows and thrives thanks to your support; thank you!

#GivingTuesday - Support Rikers Debate Project Today is Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving. Now more than ever is the time to support teaching students at Rikers Island the skills of competitive debate. Your contribution helps our organization grow and expand at a critical time. You can donate here; donations to the Rikers Debate Project are tax deductible.

Join us for the Rikers Debate Project Holiday Fundraiser on December 16!

Join us on Friday, December 16 from 7:00pm - 11:00pm at the Ten Degrees Bar (121 St. Marks Place) for our holiday fundraiser. Please bring along friends and colleagues. Please come support our program, meet the passionate volunteers who make it possible, and learn how to get involved! You can find more information here.

Launching Debate Classes for Women on Rikers Island

We want to celebrate the launch of our second debate class, at the Rose M. Singer for Women on Rikers Island! The first women’s classes will begin this Saturday, December 3, and will continue weekly thereafter. We are excited to teach the skills of debate to these new students!

Thank you for your ongoing support of the Rikers Debate Project. We are deeply appreciative. Warmest wishes for your holidays, and we hope to see you soon.