On Oct. 5, four Northwest debaters headed out to the Oregon State Penitentiary for one of the most unique tournaments of the year.
The prison, home to a Toastmasters chapter comprised mostly of inmates, annually hosts a debate tournament that takes place between prisoners and the outside community. This year, open level debaters Marlene Pierce and John Swayne had the opportunity to compete alongside judge Calvin Horne and observer Annaliese Herms.
Over the course of eight hours, the selected community members and convicts participated in three general rounds of debate and a final. “For some of the men in the prison, this tournament is the only contact they have with people from the outside world,” Horne explained. “This is an opportunity to interact with inmates face to face and to minister through fellowship and conversation.”
For many inmates, the tournament is their first time seeing a debate and seeing what the Toastmasters program, devoted to developing good speaking habits, is all about. Fred, an inmate, couldn’t help but smile as he shared his new hope of joining Toastmasters and competing in future tournaments as he talked to NU’s team.
Fred and his buddy George were among the prisoners who cheered on Swayne and Pierce as they were announced as one of the teams in the final.
“It is easy to write prisoners off as outcasts and ‘lost causes’, but my experiences and conversations at OSP showed me that they are anything but,” said Herms, who watched the debates with a prisoner named Doug.
In the end, the debaters left their preconceived notions at the door and saw the prisoners for who they really were: people. “If they weren’t wearing their prison uniforms, I would not have been able to tell that they were any different than an average person. They have passions, hobbies, goals, and stories, just like any one of us,” reflected Horne.
Aside from breaking down stereotypes, this tournament also brings morale back into the lives of the incarcerated. “They were so grateful that there were people who weren’t afraid to interact with them. They said it made them ‘feel like they were still humans,’” recalled Herms, who has attended the tournament twice.
Swayne couldn’t help but notice the change that took place over his time on the inside as well. “You could see it was boosting their morale and validating their sense of community,” he remarked. “The overall experience was simply amazing.”
In the end, a Toastmasters team was announced the winner, accepting the gleaming first place trophy with smiles wider than an uninterrupted horizon. Cornelius, the top speaker and a member of the winning team, remarked at how this was the highlight of his year as he shook hands with his competition.
The trophies and awards took second place to the profoundly unique experience the OSP debate offers. “This tournament is so much more than trophies and competition,” Swayne said. “It’s about letting the prisoners know we appreciate and support them as human beings and the progress they have made.”
Written by Marlene Pierce