By Emily Wood
No phone, no wallet, no keys. Please wear a bra, but not one with underwire in it. Sweatpants are fine, but try not to wear any with PINK written across the ass. And, most importantly: don’t wear blue jeans. If you can stick to this dress code (and pass a pretty intensive background check) you’ve got your ticket into the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
A seven minute drive from campus, OSP houses a fair portion of the state’s most violent offenders, with approximately 2,000 inmates serving time for various felony charges you probably don’t want to know the details of. Some of these inmates will be released eventually. Many will remain at OSP for the remainder of their lives, where they will either die of natural causes, internal violence at the hands of other inmates or guards, or by way of lethal injection (a measure which is still legal in the state of Oregon).
The penitentiary has been in operation since 1851, and in that time it has seen many acts of assault and aggression within its own walls. These occurrences are, unfortunately, unsurprising. Nobody expects prisons to be lovely or even livable, and there are plenty of people who believe they should be just the opposite.
But in more recent years of the penitentiary’s lifespan there have been movements to address the brutality of corrections facilities by creating spaces for inmates to apply themselves, receive group support, invest in religious or cultural values, and hone skills. They take the form of clubs, special interest groups, and support meetings. One of such spaces is the Capital Toastmasters Club, a branch of the Toastmasters International nonprofit organization, which meets routinely in OSP.
According to its mission statement, Capital Toastmasters seeks to “provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment [for inmates] in which every individual member has the opportunity to develop oral communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.” It’s method? Public speaking and competitive debate.
Did you know that glossophobia (fear of public speaking) is the most common phobia in the world? Plenty of folks openly call for the cold embrace of death if it means they don’t have to stand at a podium before a room full of people. But for these men, it’s a shot at regaining their voices in a society which has long rendered them silent.
Allow me to put this in perspective. The total incarcerated population in the United States in 2014 was 2.4 million people. This number has undoubtedly grown since, as incarceration rates in the U.S. have been steadily rising since the 80’s with no signs of stopping. Our country has been in the lead for most incarcerations globally since 2002; though the United States comprises 5% of the global population, it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. One could say we have something of an incarceration problem- a bad habit that began for us way back during the Reagan administration.
But this is the big picture. When we break down these huge numbers, we find that particular communities are more represented in our criminal justice system: people who are impoverished, and people of color. Frequently, these categories overlap.
On any given day, 1 in 10 black men in his thirties is in jail or prison. Over half of prison occupants are people of color, and white men are 2.3x less likely than Latino men to be incarcerated (and this number is even higher in comparison to black men.) Numbers are drawn from data provided by The Sentencing Project.
Though this inequity has plenty to do with overt racial bias present in our criminal justice system, blame must also fall upon the sheer lack of resources afforded to individuals who are in financial need. Public defenders, for example, are routinely overburdened and underpaid while private attorneys have smaller caseloads, and are able to robustly tackle the needs of each client.
And the problem doesn’t lie only in the ravenous nature of our privately-owned prisons, or the systemic discrepancies which land vulnerable peoples in less favorable circumstances. Policies and legislation have targeted and impaired felons’ ability to reintegrate, even after they’ve served time. Only two states in the nation completely preserve voting rights for felons, while several states don’t allow felons or ex-felons the right to vote at all once they’ve been convicted, meaning a felony conviction in your twenties renders you politically mute in your sixties. Boxes on job applications which ask whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime dramatically reduce an ex-offender’s chance of becoming gainfully employed after their time in prison- and this is huge, considering a paying job is the single biggest step to reducing recidivism for past offenders, according to the National Institute of Justice.
All of these factors, these institutionalized obstacles, contribute to the disenfranchisement which smothers ex-felons even after they’ve supposedly “paid their dues” to society. They are not only isolated from the world for months or years at a time for the sake of punishment, but are then left without resources, deprived of any means to enact beneficial change on behalf of themselves or their communities. The cycle of impoverishment turns and turns.
That is the very reason Capital Toastmasters is valuable: it’s rewriting the script of hopelessness for men who serve time. It’s a program run for inmates, by inmates, proving that a felony conviction, or a handful of mandatory minimum sentences, do not deprive someone of their ambition, talent, and eagerness to lead when given the opportunity. And while inmates are taking a stand and investing in themselves, it’s important that we invest in them also.
This is how Willamette’s partnership with the Capital Toastmasters Club began. This school’s Debate Union has been routinely visiting the prison on Friday nights to compete, participate in poetry slams, and learn with the inmates for years now- and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another program in this country that does the same.
On October 1st, the men of Capital Toastmasters invited collegiate debate teams from across the country to the penitentiary grounds for a tournament. Willamette’s Debate Union made a showing, along with teams from as far as Miami, Florida. This was the 6th Annual Capital Toastmasters Tournament held at OSP.
A competition in a maximum security prison looks and feels a bit different from the competitions most collegiate debaters frequent. Where there is usually the clacking of heeled shoes on tiled classroom floors, there is the sound of sneakers scuffling cement. Great big windows overlooking lush college campuses are swapped for sheets of fogged glass looking out to a barren prison yard. There are no bulletin boards coating the hall as you enter, boasting of esteemed guests and upcoming academic lectures. But there is a single sign which reads HAVE A SAFE DAY.
Myself, my teammates, and most other collegiate debaters, have given numerous speeches about the school-to-prison pipeline in tournaments. We have advocated on behalf of the disenfranchised when critiquing policy proposals, and rambled at length about the pros and the cons of mandatory minimums. But before opportunities like these had been opened to us, we had been largely disconnected from the people we so desperately wanted to protect, who were the greatest stakeholders in these discussions about mass incarceration and justice. We were people who didn’t understand, telling what we know to other people who didn’t understand.
It’s not that I think these discussions are only valuable when an inmate is present, just that they become exponentially more informative, more real, and more important. The ivory tower is pervasive in academia and in our spaces of learning, and elitism thrives when we forget that issues connect to people. Even worse, when we neglect to include these people in our discussions, we lose out on the perspectives which arguably matter most.
So when we sit down and learn alongside people who are behind bars, as was done at the OSP tournament and will continue to be done through events sponsored by the Toastmasters Club, the benefits are undeniable. Inmates are given a chance to express themselves on issues that are pertinent to them, a platform they have been deprived of. They learn skills which will hopefully equip them to do good and lead others in the future, whether that means within penitentiary grounds, or in the communities they hope to return to someday.
For us, these events at the Oregon State Penitentiary deconstruct boundaries that have kept us from considering the alternative outlooks and perspectives that academic spaces so clearly lack. They put us in touch with the people we’ve been missing out on. They teach us that there is plenty we don’t know. They inform our education and our activism with compassion, rather than mere statistics.
Emilia Cubelos, a teammate of mine who competed at the OSP tournament, stated it best, “When we don’t invest in our inmates, and give them chances to grow, it’s costly. Not just in terms of the money spent housing them and discharging them and then taking them back when they have nowhere to go. But we miss out on so much potential. We miss out on wisdom. We paint these pictures in our heads of ‘people who do bad things’. We need to start making room for humanity in those paintings.”