Sammy Westfall

Twelve female inmates took a break from prison life to debate the resolution “we prefer a world where people cannot lie” at York Correctional Institute on Saturday. The group, York Debate Society, will continue to meet once a week at Connecticut’s only women’s prison to develop the ability to advocate for themselves and their beliefs.

The debate group was started by Ann Manov GRD ’23, a first-year doctoral student, who was involved with debate throughout high school and college. Last winter, Manov began volunteering with the Rikers Debate Project in New York City. She was introduced to the program by Alex Taubes LAW ’15, an attorney in New Haven and one of the founding directors of the Rikers Debate Project.

“When it comes to criminal justice, the voices of the people who are most directly affected are going to be the ones that make the biggest difference,” said Taubes, the co-chair of the class. “It’s about creating an integrated political community where everybody can participate and have a voice.”

The News was not able to interview women enrolled in the program because of the prison’s privacy policies.

After coming to Yale, Manov wanted to expand the project to Connecticut. She met with staff at York Correctional Institution, and began recruiting people interested in teaching debate, including Yale College, graduate, law and nursing students, as well as alumni and Connecticut residents.

Coming from different backgrounds, the program’s volunteers bring different experiences to the debate group. One student taught creative writing in a prison in upstate New York. One volunteer worked for the UN Refugee Commission. Another taught debate in Slovenia.

“Some of [the volunteers] know more about how to deal with trauma. Some are coming from more political backgrounds. Some of them have experienced teaching debate,” Manov said. “All of them are united by a genuine desire to see our students have a really great debate class.”

The class began with a short meditation that turned into a long discussion between students and teachers about the objectives of the class, what debate meant to everyone and what they hoped the class could teach them about being communicators. They discussed the types of topics they wanted to debate, from family life to economic issues and international conflict.

“It was great to see the wide range of interests and how much they supported each other’s goals and how eager they were to have diplomatic and structured conversation about these issues,” Manov said.

Eva Quinones GRD ’23, a first-year doctoral student in political science, was similarly impressed by the enthusiasm of the students. People who join debate clubs often already have experience with public speaking, and so they take the opportunity for granted. But the women who participated on Saturday were clearly not taking for granted this new platform to speak.

For Jenny Tumas LAW ’20 part of her desire to join the York Debate Society is to understand how the law affects citizens in a way that is not purely academic.

“Sometimes when we go to law school, we don’t really understand a lot of what the law does to people’s lives and how it can be really violent and marginalizing,” she said. “It’s important for law students to understand that before they become lawyers.”

During a group planning meeting on Tuesday, Tumas said volunteers must think through the ways in which they are complicit in the correctional model of justice by coordinating with the prison and tailoring the program to its rules. She said it is unwise not to consider what that means in terms of a larger system of incarceration.

This in part motivates the York Debate Society’s advocacy goal to challenge the carceral system — by doing things like helping prisoners share their stories with people on the outside and fundraising for bail money.

“We want to use debate to push for will reforming the system because we are aware that we are in an unjust system — and we make it look better on the surface,” Taubes said.

Before ending the class, the teachers passed around research briefs made by Quinones on their next topic: whether hate speech should be made illegal.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu