The University of California Santa Cruz debate team came to San Quentin to compete with the home team’s incarcerated students on Feb. 26.
The two teams debated in front of a live audience of almost 100 inmates and college faculty and staff in the Q’s Garden Chapel.
“Welcome to the Ethics Bowl Match hosted by Mount Tamalpais College and The Center for Public Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz,” said MTC Chief Academic Officer Amy Jamgochian.
“Education, like Ethics Bowl, is not just about knowledge. It’s about listening to each other, engaging in dialog, and considering other perspectives. This is an example of what MTC is about and just what the world needs now.”
MTC coach Kyle Robertson described how the Ethics Bowl is different from other forms of debate.
“In Ethics Bowl, the teams are not assigned a position. They argue what they actually believe. They are judged on respectful civic engagement with the other team’s views and moving the conversation forward,” he said.
“The biggest audience the Santa Cruz Ethics Bowl team ever has is here inside San Quentin.”
MTC coach Kathy Richards introduced the debaters and judges. MTC coach Connie Krosney and UCSC coach Jordan Dopkins sat in the front row.
The first ethical dilemma presented for debate centered around the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, one of the most notorious acts of racist violence in American history. Till, a Black teenager, was found lynched days after a young White woman accused him of making advances on her.
Richards asked the MTC team, “Would it be ethical to arrest, indict, and prosecute Carolyn Bryant as an accomplice in the murder of Emmitt Till?
“It would be ethical,” answered Angel Alvarez. “It is unethical that Bryant has not been held accountable.”
He said that Bryant was partly to blame because she knew that in the Jim Crow South her accusations would likely lead to Till’s murder.
Rob Tyler continued MTC’s response, saying that from a utilitarian perspective — aiming to bring the most good to the most people — the time and money spent to uphold the laws was worth it because of the importance of bringing justice to victims, particularly to the marginalized.
Ben Tobin added that, considering our nation’s history of 400 years of slavery, Emmett Till is exactly the champion we need to get behind.
“Justice demands that we do what’s right and validate Emmett Till’s humanity, no matter how long it takes,” he said.
The incarcerated team’s time ran out, and the visiting team responded.
The UCSC team, including Kevin Bui and Forrest Hensiek, agreed with the SQ team’s position.
Charissa Ziegler asked whether it’s ethical to use the same justice system, which was utterly unjust to Till and his family, to attempt to finally bring justice now, or if changing the system would be a better approach.
UCSC also asked whether incarceration of the now 88-year-old Bryant as an accomplice in a murder that took place seven decades ago is really ethical.
MTC’s Tony de Trinidad answered, saying that accountability is just, regardless of delay or Bryant’s age. He said that if she is not fit for prison, there are more compassionate sentencing alternatives.
Then the judges engaged the prison college team. Eliezer Margolis asked how MTC’s position weighed whether or not Bryant knew her false testimony would likely result in Till’s murder. Marian Avila Breach asked if Bryant’s conviction, made possible partly due to her recanting her accusations against Till, could have a chilling effect on others coming forward with the truth in other cases.
The second ethical dilemma considered a nurse who administered the wrong drug, resulting in the death of her patient. The nurse admitted her error, citing distraction, complacency, and a faulty dispensing system.
Was it ethically correct for RaDonda Vaught to be charged with criminally negligent homicide?
“No, it was not ethical,” answered Niall Kinkead for UCSC. He said her action led to the patient’s death, but a homicide charge would create fear of retribution that would discourage others from coming forward honestly in future cases.
Hazel Uber Kellogg continued, saying that Vaught was to blame, but not entirely. He stated that nursing care system flaws, including 20-hour shifts and understaffing, also contributed to the patient’s death.
MTC’s Jessie Rose responded, disagreeing with UCSC’s position that implementing a more stringent retraining system would help, considering that the hospital actually tried to cover up the error.
Then judge Jeanne Proust entered the dialog with UCSC, asking, “Do we really need malintent for punishment, or is misconduct sufficient?”
UCSC responded to the comments, and stated that Vaught’s misconduct was not sufficient for a homicide charge. Sharan Sethi added that the fundamental problem — the institutional culture — needs to be addressed, and the hospital bears some responsibility.
After the intense 90-minute Ethics Bowl dialog with the two teams, the judges unanimously declared the prison’s Mount Tamalpais College debate team victorious. The audience erupted in huge applause and cheers.