Explaining to my friends and family that I was going to be running a series of debates in prisons, with prisoners, got more of a mixed reception than I had expected. It got a fair few laughs. Apparently there's something amusing about sending in a short, young female into an all-male, category B/C prison. Others were intrigued and my mum: terrified.
Our goal was to encourage open debate and get prisoners to think about contemporary debates that exist in society, beyond bars. I was still unconvinced. I work in a team that runs Debating Matters, a national debating competition for schools, so the prospect of teaching and training adults was daunting enough. The idea of adult prisoners made it even more so (my image of prisoners at this point being Orange is the New Black or Daily Mail stereotypes).
All stereotypes were shattered during our first training session.
The chapel at HMP Birmingham was filled with thirty attentive, engaged and bright individuals ready to listen and learn. They loved a good chat and it wasn't long before I had gone from merely working with them, to connecting with them on a whole new level - having genuine arguments with the prisoners about everything from the segregation of extremists in prison to the impact of media in society. It was only until I was having these arguments with them that I realised why our training had been so well received. For many of them, it was the first time that they had been given the opportunity to speak, be heard and to be taken seriously.
Nerves were running high in the morning of the first round of debates began. As our panels of judges began their questioning, it became clear just how seriously the prisoners were taking this. They knew they were not going to get a qualification from this, nor receive additional phone credit, and yet they were ready with Mandela quotes and statistics at their fingertips. Speaking to a few of them at the end of the debates, they were surprised by how difficult the questioning was. We weren't there to give them an easy ride, or applauded for stringing a sentence together as if they were capable of nothing more - they were there to be challenged.
Before last Thursday's final debate on whether prisoners should be allowed to vote, I tried to share a few final words of wisdom with the debaters. Instead, I was interrupted by one of them. "Trust me, we got this", he said reassuringly. How far they had come since their first time debating, I thought.
I have no doubt that we succeeded in our goal to give prisoners the chance to debate and realise the importance of debate in the real world, some of them already signing themselves up for our flagship event the Battle of Ideas upon release. For them, Debating Matters Beyond Bars was something positive to focus on with real meaning and purpose. I have no proof that this will have an impact on the rehabilitative agenda and reduce reoffending rates. However, I am certain that there needs to be a concerted effort to provide more opportunities like ours to remind them that their voices do matter.
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