Any Person, Any Study

Prison debate highlights Cornell’s intellectual egalitarianism
Monday, June 6, 2016

Sean will be a free man in October.

On May 11, he was a particuarly joyful one.

He and two other Cornell Prison Education Program students beamed when judges declared them winners in a debate against the Cornell Speech & Debate Society team.

For many in the audience, as well, it was a moment to treasure. A contingent of  professors and administrators from Cornell applauded the show of verbal alacrity and other incarcerated students cheered for their peers.

In the Auburn Correctional Facility, where intellectual pursuit is almost always overshadowed by the austere realities of a maximum-security facility, three men who have been behind bars for years had just triumphed over three Ivy Leaguers.

From the front of the prison chapel, each debater had seven minutes to articulate why or why not grades should be banned in public schools. This was the assigned debate topic to which the two teams were randomly assigned opposing sides.

Auburn students Lucas, Jodi and Sean argued in support of the ban. In response to requests, their full names are not being used in this story.

Cornellians Alex Klein ’18, Alex Lewis A&S ’16 and Adnan Muttalib A&S ’16 argued in opposition.

All briskly delivered their arguments, packing as many logic sandwiches into seven minutes as possible.

The home team brought down the house a couple of times with remarks scorning grades.

“The dopamine rush from getting a good grade is a form of pedagogical crack," said Sean, slated to earn an associate’s degree this fall from Cayuga Community College through the Cornell Prison Education Program. He hopes to become a social worker.   

Jodi, also receiving an associate’s degree this year, said, “Some of the most lifeless individuals are former valedictorians.”

He and 14 peers enrolled this past semester in “Argumentation and Debate.”

Modeled after the ILR course of the same name, it is also taught by Senior Lecturer Sam Nelson, director of Big Red’s speech and debate program.

Lindsay Bing, assistant director of the Cornell speech and debate program, based at ILR, traveled 45 minutes north to Auburn twice weekly to help teach during the spring semester. Cornell debate team member Rubin Danberg-Biggs A&S ’18 went weekly to help prepare Auburn students for the debate.

Faculty teaching through the Cornell program do so as volunteers. The program offered courses this semester at the Auburn, Cayuga and Five Points Correctional facilities.

Students do not receive Cornell degrees, but can earn a two-year degree from Cayuga Community College through the program. Lucas earned his degree in 2014, and has continued taking courses.

Kyri Murdough, coordinator of the Cornell program at Auburn, said after the debate, “What makes this win truly unbelievably is that our students, who have only had 14 weeks of formal debate training, prepared in conditions that would, to someone on the outside, seem nearly impossible.

“To have no control over access to a silent space, to have to prepare with your teammates only during scheduled practices because you otherwise don't see each other in the prison makes this an extraordinary accomplishment.”

“To have the opportunity to showcase the brilliance, tenacity and dedication of our incarcerated students to the outside world and the greater Cornell community is what made today special.”

Courses help students build meaningful lives inside prison and prepare them for successful re-entry into civic life, according to the program, which has gone from four credit-bearing courses in 2005 to 32 in 2015.

People who receive a college education while incarcerated are much less likely to be re-incarcerated after they are released than their counterparts who typically do not have access to higher education in prison, according to research.