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Pictogram representing conflict and debate via painted figures on cracked concrete.
Photo by hachiware on iStock

There is a common perception that prisons are filled with mean and mindless brutes. 

I’ve often heard that prison is where so-called criminals go to learn how to commit crime more efficiently. I less often hear more humanizing accounts of incarcerated individuals who have intelligent minds equal to Ivy League students and future leaders. 

Malcolm X devoured books during his incarceration and likened his educational process in prison to attending college. He said it was a place where people could nurture their intellectual potential. 

Before coming to prison, I embraced a street-gang subculture that endorsed an exclusive form of conflict resolution — it certainly wasn’t through debate. I was involved in violent altercations and eventually incarcerated for homicide. I lived the early years of my incarceration in total rebellion, viewing the world through a dark lens. My attitude was negative and hopeless. As a result, I became well-acquainted with solitary confinement.

During my extended trips to segregation, I would pass the time reading Sun Tzu, Niccolò Machiavelli, Henry David Thoreau and others. Occasionally I organized study groups with other confined men through the slim gaps between our concrete walls. Together we would connect what we were reading with the reality of our lived experiences. In these moments, I discovered a passion for learning that I never previously felt.

Back in the general population, I jumped at the opportunity to enroll in college-level courses. I never imagined this would be possible. I engaged with my coursework intensely. My determination made me stand out in class. Eventually I caught the attention of other incarcerated individuals who invited me to join an effort to resurrect the Norfolk Prison Debating Society — the same debate team Malcolm X joined decades earlier.

To say I was intimidated is a major understatement. Debate was foreign to me. It was outside my comfort zone and a complete cognitive and behavioral shift away from my former lifestyle. I was more accustomed to receiving peer validation for my fastest punch than for my quickest rebuttal. 

The team ran me through a rigorous crash course on the rules and etiquette of collegiate debate. Then we began researching data, drafting constructive arguments and formulating our strategies. I barely had time to acknowledge the dramatic change in my life’s direction before I stood on a wooden stage to compete with the brightest students from world-class universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and Harvard University. 

I quickly learned that the intense rush of collegiate debate resembles the adrenaline rush of a senseless street fight. We were locked in intellectual combat, not with sharp weapons but with sharp minds.

Hearing the cheers and applause from an audience of my incarcerated peers has reassured me that I am safe to explore my positive potential. I’ve come to discover that we each have the ability to experience remarkable change in our lives. We just have to be willing to try new things.

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.

Steven “Farooq” Quinlan is a writer incarcerated in Massachusetts.