The Rikers Debate Program Is Slowly Collapsing

A seemingly minor change in access to city jails has made it much harder for a lauded debate course to recruit volunteers.

Sam Mellins   ·   September 29, 2023
Mayor Eric Adams with three correction officers
Mayor Eric Adams recently cut $17 million in funding for nonprofits that provided programming on Rikers Island. | Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The Rikers Debate Project used to be a lifeline for New Yorkers trying to survive the notoriously brutal jail complex on Rikers Island.

In 2016, the program’s first year, it coached a debate team of two incarcerated men to victory over students from Columbia University. The Wall Street Journal heralded the win as the fruits of “increased educational programming on Rikers.” The New York Times called the effort “a way to help inmates learn to lobby for their rights.” Jail staff said that the course and other programs were helping to reduce fights.

Now, the Debate Project is teetering on the edge of collapse.

As New York Focus reported Thursday, a wide range of programming on Rikers Island — therapy, job training, housing counseling, and other social services — has been severely cut back by budget cuts implemented by Mayor Eric Adams this summer.

But the all-volunteer debate program’s woes stem from a different source: a seemingly minor policy change that has made it dramatically more difficult for groups working on Rikers to recruit volunteers.

The debate program is staffed by about half a dozen regular volunteers, a fraction of the 30 it had before the pandemic, said Josh Morrison, a co-founder and board member of the Debate Project. It holds just one session a week, in a housing unit on Rikers that hosts many military veterans, down from a peak of six before the pandemic. When volunteers are sick or out of town, class gets called off entirely.

“I think our students are just grateful that we are there, so they don’t complain” when debate coaches return after a canceled class, said one volunteer, who requested anonymity to prevent reprisals from the Department of Correction, which operates Rikers.

“They’re just like, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen you in a while. We weren’t sure if the program was still happening.’ They’re probably used to programs just not happening.”

A debater at a podium with a microphone
Project participants engage in debate | Courtesy of Josh Morrison

When the pandemic struck, city jails barred visitors, putting volunteer projects on hold. When the Debate Project returned to Rikers in November 2021, there was a new requirement for volunteers. Before they’re allowed in, volunteers are now required to attend two training sessions at an office complex in Elmhurst, Queens, a mile and a half from the nearest subway. The sessions are conducted during work hours, and there’s no remote option.

The training, which covers topics like how to handle security threats and maintain proper relationships with incarcerated people, was required before the pandemic, too, but providers could complete it in the months after they started work on the island. That gave the Debate Project time to get volunteers invested before they had to take time off work to attend the sessions.

“The previous version definitely was very manageable, even though the annoying aspects of security training were a constant source of frustration,” Morrison said. “The new volunteer pipeline is kind of a trickle.”

“They’re probably used to programs just not happening.”

—RIkers Debate Project volunteer

Only four dedicated volunteers have joined the Debate Project since Rikers reopened to visitors, Morrison said. Unlike the paid staff of other programs, who attend the sessions as part of their jobs, the debate volunteers are mostly young full-time professionals who have to use paid vacation days to get trained.

“It’s really tedious and it’s a lot to ask of somebody who might never have been in a jail before,” said Mary Crippen, who volunteered with the debate program from 2016 until this month, when she moved out of New York City. “It’s made it so that we can’t open up another class until we find some way around this.”

The Debate Project and other volunteer organizations have asked the Department of Correction to offer the trainings online or at more convenient locations, and at times other than the middle of the workday, but the department doesn’t seem to be interested.

Reached by email, Department of Correction spokesperson Frank Dwyer told New York Focus that the agency “continues to evaluate the location for trainings being offered and other aspects such as accessibility and convenience.”

Dwyer added that the training process has been “streamlined for the Department to remain in compliance with various regulations while also considering the time of the Volunteers/Providers.” Asked how it had been streamlined, he did not respond.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who chairs the body’s criminal justice committee, said she hadn’t been aware of the policy shift before New York Focus brought it to her attention, but plans to look into why it happened. “I don’t see why they would make it more difficult for people to volunteer and do good work,” she said.

“This administration continues to find ways to eliminate as many eyes and ears inside the jail as possible,” she added. An oversight body recently had to sue the jail agency to restore its access to surveillance video. In May, the agency stopped announcing deaths of people in custody.

The Debate Project isn’t the only volunteer group impacted by the training requirement.

“The new volunteer pipeline is kind of a trickle.”

—Josh Morrison

“I am having a hard time getting people started again,” said another individual involved with programming on Rikers Island, who requested anonymity to prevent reprisals from the jail agency. The amount of programming that their group offers has halved since before the pandemic. “I would have more if I could get the volunteers on the island,” they said.

Even when potential volunteers are willing to attend the training sessions, the Department of Correction can take many months to complete the paperwork granting them access to Rikers. Sometimes it doesn’t respond at all.

“I don’t think it’s ill will on anybody’s part. I think that there is just too much bureaucracy,” the individual involved with programming said.

Camilla Broderick spent eight months on Rikers Island after pleading guilty to non-violent drug charges. One of the hardest parts was the overwhelming boredom.

“Day after day is sort of the same. There’s one TV and you never get to choose what’s on it, because somebody else has. You get to go to the library like once every two weeks and there’s not many books there,” Broderick recalled.

One Saturday, a correctional officer announced that there was about to be a debate class. Broderick had no experience or particular interest in debate, but she didn’t have anything better to do. Immediately, she was struck by the attentiveness of the volunteers and the logical methods they were teaching. She became a regular, and started prepping between classes, readying herself for topics like abortion, the death penalty, and universal basic income.

Camilla Broderick with her arm around her partner
Broderick and her spouse. | Courtesy of Camilla Broderick

“I’d be calling up my dad and being like, ‘Hey, can you look this up for me? Because I’m gonna win,’” she said. Broderick and her debate partner were housed in different units, but other inmates helped smuggle notes and speech drafts between their dorms.

Parts of her personality that had been dormant during the eight years she was addicted to drugs started to reemerge.

“It definitely felt like a place where I could actually use my mind, which I felt like I hadn’t been doing at all,” she said. “It was sort of giving me an opportunity to see what the world is like without drugs.”

When she was released in May 2017, debate volunteers helped her readjust, taking her out to lunch and helping her apply for jobs.

“I had lost all my friends, or they all died,” she said. Because of the debate community, “It felt like I wasn’t coming home to nothing.”

Broderick is currently pursuing a masters degree in social work at Columbia University. Morrison, the debate program’s co-founder, attended her wedding this past July.

The one remaining debate class is full of engaged students, volunteers said, tackling topics like the role of protest in civil society, the death penalty, and whether the cash bail system is racist.

As detainees attend more classes, their confidence grows.

“It definitely felt like a place where I could actually use my mind.”

—Camilla Broderick

“They’re often very, very hesitant to actually get up and give a speech in the class even if they’ve been paying a lot of attention and know a lot about the issue,” said Crippen, the former volunteer. “The most rewarding part is seeing people who have been kind of quiet and shy be like, ‘You know what, no, I know what I’m talking about. And now I’m gonna give a speech.’”

Debates can get personal, especially when they focus on criminal justice topics.

“They can’t help but bring up their own cases, and think about how it would affect their lives, and it can get really emotional,” said Crippen. “And then the following week, we’ll say, ‘Okay, Beyonce versus Rihanna, who’s better?’ to try to just inject a little bit more lightness into the lesson.”

Non-political topics can still generate strong reactions. At one recent session, debate got heated on a divisive question: Is the greatest basketball player of all time Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant?

But it’s hard to forget where they are. At the beginning of one class, a volunteer asked where one of her regular students was. The class told her he’d been sent upstate after being sentenced to 85 years to life in prison. “So we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a very bleak way to start,’” said the teacher.

Six years after she was released, Broderick still participates in the Debate Project — now as a volunteer.

“That less people are going to access it is really just kind of a sad thing,” she said. “It gave me a chance to see more in myself than I had been seeing, and also have real connections inside of a place that’s deeply isolating and traumatizing.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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