When Debbie Jacob first organised a debate at the Port of Spain prison, it was as a learning tool to get her students to understand how to craft an argumentative essay.
Three years later, the prison will host its third annual debate on the topic: “Are absentee fathers a major cause of boys joining gangs?”
It will be held on November 28 at the prison from 5 pm.
Jacob, a librarian, former teacher, writer and Newsday columnist, told Newsday, “I started this basically as [the inmates] were having a really difficult time understanding how to write an argumentative essay. I did it because as a teacher that is what I have always done, I have always looked for visual representatives of things. So I thought if they could form a debate and they could see what it looks like to argue a point, to have a theme and to have support for a theme, that is a visual representation of an essay.
“So I started it just for that and I realised they were on an absolute high for months after that. Just because they never realised they could express themselves.”
The debate will be between two teams, with six to seven members each.
It will not only include inmates from Jacob’s English class at the Port of Spain prison, but this year has been opened up to other inmates as well. This year’s pilot programme will be used as the model for those the organisers hope to launch in the other prisons.
Jacob has been teaching at the prison for the past five years, and before that, taught at the Youth Training Centre (YTC) in Arouca. Her work at YTC led her to the adult prison. “I followed some students from YTC...when they became adults and they were sent there.”
These young men, she explained, were on remand for capital offences and when they came of age but had not yet been tried, they were sent to the Port of Spain prison. Some were sent to the Maximum Security Prison and had learning opportunities there, but Port of Spain did not have an English class, which led Jacob to teach English there.
For this year’s topic, even though she had presented them with about four or five options, Jacob’s class wanted to choose one that was interesting and relevant to their lives.
While it has shown the young men how to craft a good argumentative essay, the debate has also become an effective tool of communication for them. She said, “The inmates do too because it gives them a voice. It gives them a voice to put their arguments out there, to have people listen to their arguments. It gives them a way of communication. Everybody who does any work in prison knows that what you first meet when you go inside of there are young men who can express no feeling but anger. The ability to develop research skills, the ability to process events that have happened in your life, that you can use as support in a debate, the ability to put an argument together, is a very important and a very freeing experience for them. It gives them this feeling, this feeling that you can articulate your feeling is vitally important to them.”
The programme also fosters a sense of teamwork and pride. The programme has shown such great results that from this debate the six top performers from either side will be chosen and that team will then challenge other prison teams. The winning team will then debate outside groups like the University of Trinidad and Tobago and the University of the West Indies.
It is Jacob’s hope that with the debating skills acquired inside of prison, the young men would then go back into their communities and be encouraged to start similar debate teams there.
She also hopes to have this year’s debate live on radio.
“I hope people would listen to it and look at it as a model. We believe inside Port of Spain prison could be a model for communication in our communities,” she said.
Similarly, current Commissioner of Prisons William Alexander also sees this as a vehicle for communication for the young men. He said the debate “has proven to be very good. In fact, I recommended it as a developmental tool. We have a lot of violent youth. The art of debating, which is a kind of verbal challenge…when persons are restricted in terms of their vocabulary, they tend to be more aggressive. They tend toward to express themselves through violence.
“What we are doing is teaching them a civilised, socially acceptable method of expressing themselves. The inmates are very delighted to participate.”
He said exercises like these were healthy vehicles for expression.
This year’s judges include Justice James Aboud, journalist Ira Mathur, criminologist Renee Cummings, entertainer Errol Fabien, and Barney Latham, director of the International School.