Vermont Law School Student Helps Incarcerated Women Learn The Art Of Debate

Oct 14, 2015

Democratic presidential contenders are not the only debaters squaring off this week.

The other debate takes place Oct. 14 in South Burlington, inside the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.

Last spring, a Vermont Law School student named Jessica Bullock did something unprecedented at the all-female prison.

With help from the University of Vermont debate team she started teaching incarcerated women how to debate issues they care about. The inmates get to choose their topics, which thus far have included post-prison housing and the presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

On Wednesday night, two debate teams will hash out whether individuals convicted of a criminal offense should be able to opt for military service rather than incarceration.

Bullock thinks that structured argument gives inmates the skill and courage to speak publicly about their lives and beliefs.

She first became interested in empowering prisoners when she was teaching third grade in Baltimore.

“One of the pieces of information that I learned about my students and their parents as I went through, is that many of (the parents) had interfaced with the correctional system,” Bullock said.

Bullock wondered how they would share their compelling stories of rehabilitation on the inside to families, friends and prospective employers on the outside, after their release. 

She decided to start a program called the “Speak Vermont: Prison Debate Initiative,” that would teach public speaking through debate.

The first woman who showed up for class, Bullock says, was scared but eager to learn.

 

"She shared that one of her challenges is that she is afraid of speaking in front of male colleagues, and that is a struggle for her, especially when entering into a new job where you need to assert yourself." - Jessica Bullock, founder of the "Speak Vermont: Prison Debate Initiative"

    

“She shared that one of her challenges is that she is afraid of speaking in front of male colleagues, and that is a struggle for her, especially when entering into a new job where you need to assert yourself or explain or ask questions when you don’t understand something,” Bullock said. 

The program has grown from about six to about 12 inmates, with all attending classes voluntarily.

Wednesday night's event is not open to the public or to journalists, but a few guests have been invited. On the list is Bobby Sand, a former Windsor County prosecutor now serving as liaison from the Shumlin administration to criminal justice programs, including drug courts.

Sand thinks teaching criminals how to debate will prepare some — if not all — to resolve conflicts without violence.

 

To give people who are incarcerated an opportunity to learn a skill that they most likely have not learned out in the community is a wonderful opportunity." - Bobby Sand, former Windsor County prosecutor

“Is it going to work for everyone? Probably not,” Sand said. “Is it going to change peoples’ lives forever? Maybe not. But to give people who are incarcerated an opportunity to learn a skill that they most likely have not learned out in the community is a wonderful opportunity.” 

Jessica Bullock, who plans to practice criminal law when she graduates next year, hopes her initiative will spread to other correctional facilities in Vermont.

One of her ongoing mentors is the coach of the UVM debate team, Alfred Synder. Another is Johannes Wheeldon, who directs the Community Justice Network of Vermont.

Wheeldon has taught debating to inmates in Washington state, where data are now being collected about that program’s outcomes.

A broader Rand study from 2013 “showed a massive decrease in recidivism for students who had attended any college level classes while they were incarcerated," Wheeldon explained. 

Vermont is not the only state trying this experiment. Earlier this month, three men currently incarcerated at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat Harvard University in a debate that made national headlines. 

The Vermont debate this week will be judged by the invited spectators.