Debaters changing minds

I HAVE learned that if you give people a chance, they will usually surprise you. This has proved to be true time and time again with our TT all-star prison debate team, which represents the place that confines them with a sense of unimaginable pride.

These nine men call themselves Team Intellect, and they blow people away with their poise and determination. Their vocabulary, research, creativity and sense of purpose astound everyone. This team understands how to identify a theme and fashion it into a well-structured argument.

When the debate team visited the International School of Port of Spain on March 20, about 300 students, teachers and guests packed the theatre. You could hear a pin drop for the entire one and a half hours that the debaters took the stage. Students came out of curiosity, but they were mesmerised by the experience of hearing these men that society has written off. One student, Dominic, participated in the debate.

Danyaal Muhammad, Aaron Charles, Arnold Ramlogan, Prem Badree, David Khan, Kester Benjamin, Terrance Morris, Khamraj Sahadeo, and Ryan Ramoutar relished the experience of that day in my school. They come from four prisons: Carrera, Golden Grove Remand, Eastern Correctional Rehabilitation Centre, and Maximum Security Prison and yet they have formed a cohesive prison team.

The debaters always say, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” They find ways to take whatever I teach them to a whole new level. They are my pride and joy, and I share that pride with Maximum Security Prison officer Sherwin Johnson, who facilitates their practice sessions.

In the beginning of this debating venture, I promised their voices would be heard outside of prison. Since the inter-station debates began in July, I have received many memorable comments from people who have had the opportunity to witness this team’s skills, but the compliment that resonates the most with me is one that many of my school’s students expressed after hearing the debate on the topic, “Should Trinidad and Tobago allow Venezuelan refugees in Trinidad?”

“When we came to the debate,” students said, “all we wanted to know was what crimes they had committed. As we heard them speak, we didn’t care about their crimes anymore, we were just interested in what they had to say.”

This is the feeling I fight to achieve. No audience can ever envision the journey these men have made. Once, they could express nothing but anger. Now, they have learned to articulate other feelings. These men want to be viewed as productive citizens of this country who have an invaluable contribution to make to TT.

Any man serving a prison sentence in this country faces an uphill battle of ever being accepted back in society. The stigma of inmates as rough, incorrigible men prevails, but these men are proving that stereotypic image is wrong.

They are more articulate than most people I know. They are proud of their achievements. Research is their passion, and they love formulating an argument and performing before an audience.

On the day they visited my school, the debaters continuously said, “You have offered so many opportunities we never thought we would have in life.” They have been on Ardene Sirjoo’s radio programme on I95. They have debated criminology students from the University of Trinidad and Tobago and they look forward to facing those students again on Thursday.

After their debate, when none of us knew yet how the students’ minds had changed, the debaters said to me, “We thought they would ask us questions about prison.”

Instead, the students asked questions about the debaters’ preparations. Students wanted to know how to face a debate without fear. They wanted to know if the inmates chose the side they defended or if they had to defend a side they didn’t believe in and how exactly that is possible.

The students have decided they want to form a debate team now to challenge prisons. They hope to encourage other students to debate the prison team because, as they told me, “These inmates are not what we expected to see.”

Students realised there is no stereotypic image of an inmate. There are inmates who will remain stuck in anger and hate, but many men will work towards improving their lot in life. For them, that journey starts with learning how to communicate thoughts and feelings – even forming an argument in a debate. Above all, these men are hoping for another chance in life.


"Debaters changing minds"

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