Students Go Behind Bars To Debate Prisoners

Jul 18, 2017

In the history of debating, a recent contest held at the Hardee Correctional Institution had one of the more interesting lineup of participants.

On one side were four college students who had never taken part in a debate before. On the other, wearing matching uniforms - dark blue and grey - were a quartet of inmates serving life sentences.

By the time the contest was over, the participants, as well as much of the audience, knew that they had experienced something they probably never would again.

The Hardee Correctional Institution is a minimum and medium security prison located in Bowling Green, about 55 miles southeast of Tampa.

Nestled in among dairy farms and phosphate mines, the 25-year-old facility houses a maximum of 1,600 prisoners.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Hardee Correctional Institution. Photos were allowed inside the room the debate was held in, otherwise, photography was not allowed.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

But the Monday morning after Easter, a group of visitors brings a different feel to the institution.

Students from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee’s Criminology Club walk with a chaplain through the prison yard. USF assistant professor Dr. Jessica Grosholz, who also teaches a weekly business class at the prison, brought her students to debate prisoners about reinstating the U.S. military draft.

"We were originally going to co-sponsor the event with the (USFSM) Debate Club, but there weren’t many Debate Club members around that we could really get in touch with them," Grosholz says. "We needed this to get going immediately, so then we said we’ll just go ahead and do it and we sort of learned debate by the seat of our pants in a sense."

The team - two seniors, a junior and a sophomore, along with two alternates - lack the experience of the four inmates they’ll face. Those men are members of the institution’s chapter of the speech organization, Toastmasters International.

Add one more challenge, albeit one both teams face: like many debate competitions, neither side will know what side of the topic they'll be on until shortly before the contest begins, so they had to prepare both arguments.

As the group walks through the yard, the prisoners are warm and gracious. To a man, if they don’t stop to offer a greeting, they at least nod in welcome.

The group walks past a machine shop and doors bearing the names of different ministries into a large garage-like room with large rolling doors on two sides, dull blue walls throughout and dingy yellow fluorescent lighting.

As they enter, inmates who arrived early greet the students with applause. One student pauses in the doorway, confused.

"They're welcoming you," the chaplain explains.

Inmate Jason Kent (left), who's serving a life sentence for murder, speaks to USFSM senior Louie Carey.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

After the applause dies down, conversations break out. The inmates ask students about their majors and joke about them being members of the Criminology Club.

"Do you practice crime?" one asks to laughs from the group. "A lock-picking focus, then debate focus?"

They even exchange some playful pre-debate trash talk.

"We've heard of this crazy oracle that we're sure you guys have at your fingertips called 'Google,'" inmate Jason Kent says, smiling, "and so that probably helped you a lot."

Kent’s friendliness stands out. The 42-year-old still exudes the confidence of the U.S. Naval Officer he once was, before he was convicted in 2002 of the shooting death of his wife’s ex-husband in an Orlando parking lot in 1999, a crime that drew national attention.

I ask Kent why he takes part in Toastmasters.

"Communication’s fundamental to being a human being as opposed to just being an animal and it doesn’t matter that we’re in prison – whether it’s learning to communicate better with the guards, whether it’s learning to communicate better with our fellow inmates, people skills are always going to be important," Kent replies.

"Especially for these guys that are going back to court, you want to be able to communicate and present yourself well in that courtroom," he adds. "But not everybody’s going to spend the rest of their lives in here and they need to be able to have these skills on the street, they’re going to be valuable skills to have anywhere that you go in life."

Almost 100 Hardee Correctional Institution inmates gathered to watch the debate.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Plus, he says, just being in prison helps the men hone their debating skills.

"We are guys that just tend to like to argue with each other," Kent says. "If there’s anything you see that we’re doing well, it’s because we’ve had a lot of iron sharpening iron with each other because we’re definitely critiquers of one another and when we evaluate one another, we evaluate quite seriously."

I then ask about the challenge of debate preparation in a place where access to the internet is extremely limited. Kent says the earlier joke about the students having the advantage of Google is true, but his team did the best they could.

"We have encyclopedias in our library, the good old-fashioned kind where you’re opening up a book and, also, prison’s chock full of a little bit of everything in America, so when we mine each other’s heads for ideas, there’s actually a lot of information out there out of 1600 men on a compound," Kent explains.

The teams gather for a coin flip – but because prisoners can’t carry cash, Toastmasters debate organizer, inmate Grady Gore, flips a Dungeon and Dragons token.

"We have Grog the half-orc as heads and we have Sheena, warrior princess, as tails," he says as his fellow inmates jokingly taunt him.

USF Sarasota-Manatee asst. professor of criminology Dr. Jessica Grosholz (right) talks to students from the Criminology Club before the debate.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Winning the first toss by picking Sheena, USF chooses to represent the pro-draft side. The prisoners elect to speak last.

Before the debate starts, Grosholz gives her team one last pep talk.

"I am impressed with the amount of work you guys have put in over the last couple of weeks considering this is a topic not familiar with most of us," she says. "Either way, you guys have done a great job."

While nervous, the students still put up a brave front.

"If we win, we take a week off," senior Carlos Moreira says.

"Of what? School? Okay! I like that idea," fellow senior Louie Carey replies.

After a series of introductory speeches by a number of Toastmaster officers - including one inmate who gets razzed incessantly for making the dreaded mistake of referring to USF by the name of its rival school, the University of Central Florida - the debate starts.

The students - Moreira, Carey, sophomore Sami Araboghli and junior Ashley Wichern - argue that restarting the draft would draw the educated soldier needed for combat that's becoming increasingly high-tech through drones and other methods.

In addition, Carey argues increasing the number of people serving in the military could decrease the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Currently, 12 percent of our military members who come home from their first deployment suffer from PTSD. Between their third and fourth deployment, that triples to 27 percent," Carey says. "So if we have people who are coming in a little more frequently and not serving as many tours, the amount of PTSD lowers dramatically."

"Not everybody is going to spend the rest of their lives in here," Kent says. "They need to be able to have these skills on the street."

In response, inmates Kent, Charles Sciarrabba, John Hurst and Matthew Rodriguez, use the history, politics and economics of a draft.

Hurst, who’s serving life for sex crimes, draws a standing ovation from a number of inmates after a passionate closing argument that referenced his father and brother, both combat veterans, as well as American patriotism.

"Please don't get me wrong, if we're invaded, I'm all for a draft," he says. "I want a patriot who may shed blood for our country to be someone who chose to be in the boots that he's in, not someone who was forced to be in those boots."

For almost an hour, the eight competitors expound to a panel of judges and almost 100 other prisoners.

Interestingly, neither side can claim an advantage when it comes to military experience – in addition to Kent’s naval service and Hurst's family ties, student Sami Araboghli has spent two and a half years in the U.S. Marine Reserves and Moreira has served 17 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The judges, a mix of USFSM professors and prison officials, listen intently
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The judges, a mix of USF professors and Hardee officials, tally their scores, and, to the applause of their fellow inmates, the Toastmasters group is declared the winner.

Afterwards, the students congratulate the inmates as they’re handed certificates marking their victory. Gore says all the members of the Toastmasters chapter, not just the participants, share in the win.

"Oh man," he sighs. "Big morale booster, pride, self-confidence and personal growth."

Gore, who is scheduled to be released next year after serving 19 years for sex crimes, has one last request before we leave.

"I give the call-out to any college that they feel they can whoop us to come and try," he says, smiling.

The prisoners thank the students before we’re escorted out of the facility. As we stand in the parking lot outside, Moreira praises the victors.

"Just them having the certificate now is going to mean so much, just having something other than the regular curriculum that they have, is going to have a great impact on them, it’s gonna make them feel good," he says. "At the same time, it kind of makes me feel good, just helping the community, helping other people feel good about themselves."

Inmate Matthew Rodriguez, who's serving a life sentence at Hardee, speaks against reinstating the draft.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Wichern, who says she was impressed with how well-prepared the inmates were, adds that being the only woman on the platform was interesting.

"At first, it felt a little intimidating but then I kind of realized, ‘Wow, I’m the only girl here, this is kind of empowering,’" she says, laughing. "So I didn’t feel offended or anything like that, I thought it was a great experience."

And Carey sums up the feeling for many of the students, saying it was an eye-opening experience.

"You have common misconceptions about what being inside of a prison is like and what the inmates are like, and being able to get close and talk with people and share stories was truly, truly amazing," he says.

With that, the students take one last look back, pile into an SUV, and drive away from Hardee.