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Students Launch Prison Debate Program

SPEAK Vermont Prison Debate Initiative to help inmates transition back into society

Jessica Bullock and Luke Dodge stand in the entrance of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility where they teach debate to inmates as a way to help them transition back into the community (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)

Senior Luke Dodge was feeling nervous as he walked through the halls of the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. He was on his way to a room filled with 75 prisoners – to debate four of their fellow inmates. Dodge had participated in dozens of debates as a member of UVM’s Lawrence Debate Union, but none of them were as intimidating, moving, and ultimately life-changing as this one.

Dodge and his teammates wound up losing the debate that day. The same inmate team would shock Harvard at a competition a few months later, a story that garnered worldwide media coverage. For Dodge, it was a cathartic experience that would inspire him to co-found a prison debate program in Vermont to teach inmates professional, public speaking and presentation skills to help them transition back into society.

“It’s definitely my best loss,” Dodge says, “because it got me thinking about the importance of the program.” The experience also resonated with his studies. Dodge’s senior thesis focuses on post-secondary education in prisons. “These were people who had committed serious crimes. Society had given up on them, yet they were able to learn these valuable skills and beat us in a debate.”

When Dodge returned to UVM, he was determined to start a Vermont program modeled after the one that trained this team of inmates. There was already a Vermont connection: the Bard Prison Initiative is run by David Register, a former debate coach and lecturer in rhetoric, argumentation, and public speaking at UVM. Dodge ran his idea by legendary UVM debate coach Alfred C. “Tuna” Snider, who passed away in December. Snider connected Dodge with 2012 UVM alumna Jessica Bullock, who was already working on a similar initiative as a first-year student at Vermont Law School, based in part on Snider's final book Sparking the Debate: How to Create a Debate Program.

“None of this would have happened without Tuna,” Bullock says. “He was a matchmaker. In his world everyone would be trained as a debater to be able to engage in discourse and use words rather than violence, and that’s really the driving principle behind the program.” 

Women at correctional facility gain confidence, professional skills through debate 

Within a few months of meeting, Bullock and Dodge launched the SPEAK Vermont Prison Debate Initiative in February of 2015 at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The eight-week program was designed to use debate as a tool for teaching participants professional, public speaking and presentation skills.

Through the program, Bullock, Dodge and other UVM debate and Vermont Law School volunteers teach women at CRCF the rules of debating, how to conduct research, and how to construct and present an argument. Inmates vote on topics to debate, which have ranged from GMO labeling to government access to phone records, among others.

“We wanted to do more than go to prisons and show them how to debate and have fun,” says Bullock, who had founded SPEAK (Speech, Persuasion, Education, Advocacy and Knowledge) a year earlier at Vermont Law School to promote debate, public speaking, education and advocacy. “We wanted to use debate as a tool to help them gain confidence and build professional skills that would ease their transition back into society. Debate is particularly effective at helping you think on your toes, think critically, respond to questions and present yourself effectively.” 

Women in the program said the training has given them confidence and helped them in mock job interviews in preparation for when they are released.

“SPEAK helps build confidence and it helps to lift people up,” said one woman at CRCF. “There is a huge stigma around criminals. We wear a scary face. SPEAK drastically helps to soften that mask." Another inmate said she was “impressed and proud of her fellow inmates. They proved how smart they are and how knowledgeable they were on their debate subject.”

“I think they surprise themselves, which is the best part,” Bullock says. “Some of them are nervous about speaking in front of anyone much less debating in front of 25 people, so they are feeling pretty confident by the end.”

Program expands to juvenile rehabilitation center

In an effort to reach a younger population, Bullock and the SPEAK team also expanded the program to Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. UVM students Camara Hudson, Charlotte Glisterman, Franny Solnick and Isabella Olson also particpated in the initiative. Kris Hoffman, educational services supervisor at the facility, says programs like SPEAK that provide authentic learning opportunities are especially important to students at Woodside. 

“It is brutal to live in a juvenile facility,” Hoffman says. “Because our youth have histories of prior school failure and poorly developed communication skills, programs like SPEAK are crucial to helping them build critical thinking skills and develop empathy by understanding more than one perspective.”

To date, SPEAK has worked with more than 30 inmates over three full programs at CRCF, one at Woodside, and two annual programs at Vermont Law School. Bullock has recently won an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to help support the program, which is also creating international partnerships with WeDebate in Milan, Italy and Beihang University in Beijing, China. Bullock, Dodge and fellow classmates Victoria Scozzaro, Arnell Limberry, Isabella Olson, and Ryan Tartre gave a presentation in October at the New England Clinic Conference at Harvard Law School titled, “SPEAK Vermont: Promoting Powerful Voices.”

For more information about SPEAK, securing a program, or donating, contact Jessica Bullock: