The power of persuasion: Inmates hone their debate skills in class
10:57 PM, Jun 25, 2012 |
Inmates arguing: probably not the most unusual occurrence at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
But inmates arguing whether the United States should grant amnesty to foreign-born children of illegal immigrants is not what one might expect to hear on a muggy afternoon at a maximum-security prison.
Yet that was the scene playing out on the activities floor of the Salem correctional facility, where chain link fences form a border around the space. A blue-screened monitor announced the purpose of the gathering: “Welcome to Our Graduation. Way to go guys!!!”
Monday marked the final day of an eight-week prison debate class sponsored by the Capital Toastmasters Club and led by volunteer instructor Jackson Miller, professor of communication arts and director of forensics at Linfield College.
The four teams of two sat at tables in the front of the room, wearing blue shirts with an orange “inmate” stamped on the back. The prisoners each were given six minutes to express their most persuasive points.
The first debater, Sterling Cunio, walked to the microphone, grasped the wooden podium with both hands and began his speech with a confidant voice: “Give me your tired, your poor...”
Beginning his speech with an excerpt from the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, he argued in support of granting amnesty. He paused dramatically to drive home a point or make eye contact with the judges.
Fellow inmates pounded the tables with their knuckles, the equivalent of applause in debate.
The debate continued for an hour, until each member of each team had his say. There were moments of humor. There was a period of suspense when one debater became tongue-tied.
“You got it, brother!” someone called out in encouragement. “Don’t worry!”
There were times when the argument took a tense turn.
“Do you have children?” one inmate asked another who was arguing against amnesty. “Are they as guilty as you for coming to prison?”
At the end of the afternoon, each inmate proudly walked to the front of the room and collected a certificate of achievement for finishing the eight-week class. They had cinnamon rolls and coffee to celebrate.
The debate participants all are members of the Capital Toastmasters Club, an official Toastmasters International Club, consisting of Oregon State Penitentiary inmates. Toastmasters is dedicated to developing public speaking and leadership skills.
Every Monday for the past eight weeks, from 1:30 to 3 p.m., a select group of club members have gathered to debate current events under Miller’s instruction. They take turns speaking. They offer support. They agree to disagree. And then they head back to their cells.
Some of them continue to discuss the debate topic, talking about what they could have done better or key points they missed.
The class participants come up with the topics themselves, but they do not get to choose what side they want to argue, which sometimes makes for a memorable debate. Ron Edgemon, president of Capital Toastmasters, has argued in support of Measure 11 and the death penalty.
When he was 27, he shot and killed two men outside of a tavern. He’s 42 now.
He joined Toastmasters because he was terrified of public speaking. The first time he gave a speech, his knees were knocking and his knuckles were white as he held tightly to the podium, he remembered with a chuckle.
“I didn’t want to stay afraid of that, so I decided to face it head on and overcome it,” he said.
Now, he finds himself having empathy for the other side, even if it’s a side with which he disagrees. The life skills he’s learned won’t be put to use outside of prison walls anytime soon — his release date is Jan. 18, 2022 — but he feels as though he can make a difference on the inside.
“I would be selfish if I took all the things people have taught me and kept them to myself,” he said. “… It gives my life meaning and purpose.”
The debate class is not for college credit and Miller does not get paid to instruct it.
“One thing I’ve noticed is there are not a lot of opportunities in the prison environment to get positive feedback on communication and to communicate with each other in a positive way,” Miller said. “With debate, disagreement is expected, but it’s healthy disagreement.”
The Capital Toastmasters Club happens to be one of the clubs with the highest membership of the 173 clubs in District 7, which encompasses Oregon, parts of southwest Washington and northern California. The club has been awarded the President’s Distinguished Club Award, the highest honor a club can achieve, the past five years.
“They are one of our bigger clubs membershipwise,” said Deveny Bywaters, district governor. “Clubs struggle to stay at 20 members. You may have 30 members in some but it’s not near as common. Or you may have 30 members but only 15 show up to meetings.”
The Capital Toastmasters Club has 45 members. Edgemon said they all show up to meetings.
Having a captive audience could be one explanation for the good attendance. But Bywaters said she thinks the success of the club goes beyond that.
“I think they’re on a mission,” she said. “They’re in prison because of bad communication and leadership skills, so they are on a mission to improve that so when they get out of prison, they can fit back into life in a positive way and a successful manner.”