Every week through the fall, four men and three women incarcerated in Maine have logged onto a Zoom call from correctional facilities across the state. They have gathered to prepare for an upcoming debate against undergraduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To hear their coach Daniel Throop tell it, these incarcerated debaters are party to a historic moment. On Oct. 12, in a live-streamed event at the National Conference for Higher Education in Prisons, the two teams will exchange arguments and rebuttals over an increasingly urgent question: Should Supreme Court justices be subject to term limits?
A formerly incarcerated debater himself, Throop is one of the masterminds behind the event, which is sponsored by the Denver-based Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and marks the formal launch of the nascent National Prison Debate League.
In his role, Throop, who now lives in Worcester, Mass., serves as part debate logistics administrator for the upcoming event and part coach to the Maine Department of Corrections debaters, most of whom will be meeting face-to-face for the first time next week, at an undisclosed facility. (The MIT squad will be together on campus.)
“You’re putting men and women in a state prison security infrastructure in the same room together,” Throop said. “That’s unprecedented as far as my experience in prison systems. [Maine DOC] is giving us a lot of trust.”
Throop is a bit of an egghead — a bald autodidact who grew up “in the system, talking shit,” he said. A voracious reader, he found a productive outlet for his intellectual energy when he began practicing debate at Massachusetts’ Old Colony Correctional Center. “We challenged each other, we learned, we studied, we researched, we did speeches,” Throop said. “None of us had college education at the time, and it kind of surprised me how well I took to it.”
Throop was released from Massachusetts State Prison in June after serving a 19-year sentence. Prison Journalism Project spoke to Throop recently over Zoom about his debating past, the National Prison Debate League, and the upcoming battle royale between Maine DOC and MIT. His comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Let’s face it, in prison the stereotypes are that it’s mostly a physical game, right? But that’s not really what it is today. Certainly there’s plenty of physical violence, and there are dangers you need to be prepared for and alert to. But when I was incarcerated, it was more about keeping your mind intact.
”Without any intellectual stimulation, that left many of us in really bad shape. Even in program spaces with my peers, we had high rates of suicide, we had a lot of depression, we had a lot of people who were just completely demoralized and hopeless.
”And so, with debate, we were really trying to inspire each other and keep ourselves engaged in this form of mental liberation. It really was a form of freedom. Debate specifically challenged me and my peers to push past what we thought was possible. It was amazing to see that we all … were capable of a lot more than we even gave ourselves credit for. And that continued to inspire greater confidence and self-esteem. It’s like, if we can do this, then what else can we do?
“We spawned the first-ever pilot program at Old Colony Correctional Center through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. We had debates in 2006, 2007, 2008.
”By 2009, we had become so confident, and our events were so popular, that we were having one or two big debates a year. After beating the heck out of each other for a few years, we wanted to test our mettle against the local college, Bridgewater State. So we invited them in.
”It was inspirational within the facility. Even guards and the superintendent were coming around, making bets on us. It was almost like they even took ownership of us, were proud of us; it was such a weird dynamic. I remember the superintendent at the time, he came to see me at work and basically said, ‘Hey, you better win.’
”And we did.
”As a result of us opening a lot of eyes to our potential — including to ourselves — I was given an opportunity to meet with then-Gov. Deval Patrick. We talked about prison education and reform, and he stayed in touch over the years. That was the moment when it kind of crystallized, that I wanted to use my voice towards policy reform.
“Upon my release earlier this year, I set about creating the National Prison Debate League, a long-held vision of mine. The model for me was a rebooted version of Norfolk Prison Debating Society, the same society Malcom X was a part of from 1948 to 1952.
”I reached out to my academic partners I worked with through the Massachusetts state prison system — Professor Lee Pearlman, the co-founder of MIT’s Educational Justice Institute, and John Katsulas, the director of debate at Boston College. The three of us connected with Maine DOC to convince them to give us an opportunity.
”They put together a co-ed team from across four different [Maine DOC] facilities, which is very unique. The logistics involved are vast and varied, especially with men and women. It’s unprecedented how much Maine DOC has been willing to give.
“We have weekly coaching meetings every Tuesday night at 6 via Zoom, with the entire Maine team on the call. We’re doing rehearsals week to week, and the debaters all have access to their own laptops, their own emails. They can actually do limited internet research — not a lot of prisons offer that.
”The incarcerated debaters are also grad students in an MIT prison education program. They’re very sharp. The talent that we’re going to be putting on the stage, I don’t think the competition is going to be ready for it. The preparations are going very well. I’m trying to give them all the tools they need to be successful, and I have no doubt that they’re going to represent themselves and incarcerated people very, very well.
”Ultimately, they’ve already won. Those debaters up there are almost like prison education personified.
“In debate, there are different roles. Constructive speakers outline the case you’re making, like a lawyer would. These arguments are very analytical, structured, focused on defined points. Meanwhile, rebuttals are more quick-witted. You have to not just think quickly, but react quickly, because you don’t have much time.
”People like myself, who are natural shit-talkers, are pretty good at rebuttal. When you grow up in the system, when someone says something to you, you don’t let anything go. You gotta be quick with a comeback, right? Rebuttal is very much the same skill set, it’s just that in this case you’re using evidence instead of emotion to make your argument.
”Finally, the closer is someone who has to be very concise in a way that is emphatic, powerful and clear.
”Good arguments must be fact-based. It’s a point supported by evidence, not just some unfounded bias or opinion.
”And to have an intelligent debate, the quality of your evidence matters. If you want to quote Donald Trump, fine, that’s your source. But Donald Trump is not the most accurate individual historically, so then that evidence isn’t worth much.
“To do this well, you need to be willing to challenge yourself and your convictions. You need to be an independent thinker. You have to be a dedicated teammate.
”And you have to be creative — and not just in your arguments. In your prep, you also have to be creative working around the chaos and distraction and negativity of a prison environment. Without creativity, there’s no way to really do that effectively.
”I’ve had prison administrators telling me that debate isn’t an academic program. You need to remain undaunted and creatively navigate those obstacles. And once you do, the sky’s the limit.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.