San Quentin inmates prevailed against University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) students in the second Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl match hosted by the Prison University Project (PUP).
About 100 people, including PUP, gathered in the prison chapel for the lively debate on February 15. After two rounds of engaging discussion seeking resolution of ethical dilemmas, the judges narrowly decided in favor of the inmate/students on the San Quentin-PUP debate team.
Combined with last year’s victory, the team of incarcerated students is now two-for-two in the competition with the UCSC Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB) team.
“I was impressed with last year’s performance,” said PUP student Roosevelt “Askare” Johnson. The success inspired him to join the team himself. Minutes before this year’s match began, Johnson said, “I look forward to the challenge, and I’m hopeful to keep the legacy alive.”
Randy Akins, another member of this year’s San Quentin debate team, described how he learned constructive dialogue skills through college classroom discussions. “PUP prepared me to argue respectfully. We can agree to disagree. We can find common ground.”
Angel Alvarez, in his second year of the competition, completed the three-student San Quentin team. The team began preparing for the Ethics Bowl in weekly PUP Debate Group meetings with the volunteer coaches in September.
“The Debate Group is an opportunity for prisoners to weigh in on the important issues of today—issues which may have nothing to do with prison,” said coach Kathy Richards after a meeting. “The Ethics Bowl allows you to argue from a place you truly believe.” She described how the Ethics Bowl format is more honest than other debate formats that arbitrarily assign a “pro” or “con” position to a team, regardless of their actual perspectives on the issue.
Coach Connie Krosney described the role of a San Quentin Ethics Bowl coach. “We help the men think in philosophical terms rather than just responding with a gut reaction,” said Krosney, who holds a doctorate in applied ethics. “We teach them to articulate ethical concepts, to think critically and logically,” she said. “It’s important to understand others’ perspectives.”
“Ethics Bowl teaches a form of argument that is constructive, respectful, and moves the conversation forward,” said San Quentin coach Kyle Robertson before the event. Robertson is a lecturer in philosophy at UCSC and also coaches their IEB team. In his 14 years of coaching UCSC, the team has advanced to the national IEB four times.
“Instead of using argument as a weapon, the Ethics Bowl uses argument as a genuine form of communication,” said David Donley, who also coaches both teams. He said the debate inside San Quentin State Prison is important because “the audience sees people from very different backgrounds engage respectfully in conversation about very difficult topics.”
The debate began with moderator Kathy Richards introducing the issue for round one, including consideration of “disproportionate disenfranchisement of African Americans as one symptom of a biased criminal justice system.” With stopwatch in hand, she then asked the question of the first round to the San Quentin team: “Is it ethical to deny ex-felons the right to vote?”
Given two minutes to prepare their answer, the PUP team—seated at their table on the left side of the stage—immediately began writing notes.
On the right side of the stage, the six UCSC teammates—all undergraduate students majoring in philosophy, psychology, and legal studies—quickly formed a circle around their table to plan their rebuttal.
Allowed ten minutes to present their views, Johnson led the PUP team’s response: “Ex-felons should have the right to vote upon successful completion of their sentence and parole…” He continued, “Restoring the right to vote not only restores an injustice, but it also restores integrity and humanity.”
Teammate Akins added, “If you can’t vote, you’re not part of the system. You don’t feel American.”
Santa Cruz was permitted one minute to confer, and then debater Noah Thomas began the team’s five-minute rebuttal. “Thank you for your views. We agree it is unethical to deny the right to vote to ex-felons after parole…also during any stage in the process.”
He engaged further, “Being incarcerated may mean you are more affected by the laws, so you should still have a voice in the system, even if you have broken the social contract.”
Teammate Marian Avila-Breach reinforced the rebuttal, “Considering broader racial inequities, where is the justice here?”
After a one minute San Quentin team conference, Johnson began their five-minute response to UCSC’s position. “We agree with the law Governor Brown passed last year allowing voting in county jails.” However, Johnson also clarified a point of disagreement, “Voting as a prisoner is not correct. If you break the social contract, you forfeit that right. You have to pay the price.”
The judges then entered the dialogue. From their center-stage table, they asked the PUP students to clarify whether restoring the right to vote was conditional on low recidivism and plentiful rehabilitative resources, a point made in the team’s initial response. The all-volunteer panels of judges were PUP communications and public speaking teacher Will Bondurant, David Donley, and UCSC IEB alumna and UC Berkeley law school student Anna Zaret. The first round ended with the San Quentin team’s engagement with the judges.
The second round offered the UCSC students their turn to formulate, present, and defend their position on a different ethical dilemma:
Regarding recently passed Belgian law prohibiting the slaughter of un-stunned animals according to Jewish Kosher and Islamic Halal practice, moderator Richards asked, “Is it ethical to value animal welfare more than the right to practice one’s religion freely?”
Avila-Breach led Santa Cruz, responding that the question presents a false juxtaposition, but their overarching moral evaluation found that the law itself is ethical. She stated that their research shows that the secular state’s intent is for the law to reduce suffering and increase empathy, not to diminish religious freedom.
Teammates Sadelle Sewalt, Robert Potter, and Paul Mojaver presented further support for UCSC’s position. San Quentin’s Angel Alvarez rebutted, “A secular community can still have biases…we feel this is an unfair law…it infringes on the religious rights of minorities.”
Santa Cruz reemphasized that the un-stunned slaughter causes suffering, but Aliye Swaby offered, “We do acknowledge that these religious beliefs and practices are important and that they do con- sider animal suffering.”
Then the judges engaged UCSC, asking how their team position balances the state promoting compassion versus limiting personal freedom. Nodding heads and quiet comments filled the audience and stage when judge Zaret asked, “Can disproportionate impact override a lack of discriminatory intent?”
After the Santa Cruz Ethics Bowl team’s dialogue with the judges, the only thing left was the scoring.
THE JUDGES’ SCORES:
After tallying their individual score cards and a brief conference, the three-judge panel announced their scores to the audience and debaters. Judge Bondurant: SQ 44, SC 48. Judge Zaret: SQ 48, SC 47. Judge Donley: SQ 52, SC 51.
The two-to-one split-decision granted the win to the San Quentin inmate-scholars. The Ethics Bowl is a collaboration between the PUP College Program at San Quentin and the Center for Public Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz. Prison University Project’s mission includes increasing access to higher education for incarcerated people.
PUP’s Debate Group teaches San Quentin inmates the crucial skill of engaging in constructive, respectful dialogue. Through the Ethics Bowl, PUP brings the invaluable voices of the incarcerated into the important discussions shaping society today.
The Center for Public Philosophy strives to empower the broader public by spreading philosophical thinking beyond the select few in universities. In addition to the San Quentin Ethics Bowl, the Center engages the public with projects that bring philosophy into elementary schools, high schools, and local county jails.
Jon Ellis, the founding director of the Center and associate professor in the department of philosophy at UCSC, attended the match between the San Quentin and Santa Cruz students. “The Ethics Bowl is a crucial form of debate because it emphasizes disagreeing constructively and productively. How we disagree is important,” he commented after the event. “When there is a lot at stake, we are likely to get emotional or adversarial, but that is precisely when we need clear thinking and understanding the most.”
Unlike traditional debate, Ethics Bowl promotes moving the conversation forward, seeking resolution and common ground.