Innocent but Treated Guilty: Debating Pretrial Incarceration

Does pretrial incarceration place unfair disadvantages on the poor, still presumed innocent, or does it ensure for the safety and wellbeing of the larger society? On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Swarthmore students and visitors from the Rikers Debate Project delved into this argument of criminal justice reform in Sci 101.

Current members of Swarthmore’s Peaslee Debate Society, along with staff and students of the Rikers Debate Project, faced off in teams of three with speaking slots varying from two to five minutes. A coin flip determined sides, resulting in the government team arguing against pretrial incarceration, while the opposition team argued in favour. A panel of six judges, three Peaslee and two Petey Greene (an organisation that supplements education in correctional institutions) members, judged the debate.

The event began with a brief introduction from Josh Morrison, a lawyer and former college debater, who is a current board member and co-founder of the Rikers Debate Project. Morrison described how the organisation, founded three years ago, teaches the skills of competitive debate, communication, conflict resolution, and public citizenship to people currently and formerly incarcerated in Rikers Island, a New York jail notorious for harsh and dangerous conditions

In October of this year, the New York County Council voted to replace Rikers with four smaller jails across the city, leaving Rikers currently scheduled to close by the end of 2026. Jails house inmates pre-conviction, or post-conviction for sentences shorter than a year, while prisons house inmates for post-sentencing periods longer than a year. Morrison concluded by noting the national growth of the Riker Debate Project, recently expanded to six cities across the country, and the development of the new college demonstrations project that brought RDP to Swarthmore.      

Jasmine from RDP and Peaslee members Sarah Wheaton ᾿21 and Gillian Zipursky ᾿21 represented the government. Issues of equality across socio-economic classes, the presumption of innocence, and the value of edge cases were central points of focus. 

“We think the vast majority of people who are put in prison unfairly outweighs the slim number that are edge cases … there are long term consequences for being in jail … and people end up taking plea deals as they feel pressured to because they are in jail.”

The opposition team of Brian from RDP and Peaslee members Julia Botkin ᾿21 and Aditya Jayakrishnan ᾿20, responded by emphasising the purported benefits of pre-trial incarceration.

“Sometimes a strong incentive, even with force, is what people need to get the treatment required … if you know you are going to be incarcerated if you commit a crime you are less likely to commit that crime, it acts as a deterrent.”

The opposition team then went on to put forth their own case: 

“Even though pre-trial detention may not be necessary for every case it assists with your and my public safety and I am very glad that it is in place … if we were to abolish it completely there would be a severe backlash on the justice system … when someone doesn’t show up to their court appearances it makes the system look illegitimate if there are not serious consequences, and it amasses serious court costs.”

After all speakers from both sides had presented the judges left the room to deliberate, while a question and answer session was opened up between the audience and two RDP debaters and interns, both former Rikers inmates.

Jasmine, who spent six months in Rikers, discussed how she became involved in the debate program.

“I started doing debate in Rikers Island and it lead me to meet other people who wanted to spend their time wisely, I know it sounds really cliché … it really gives you public speaking skills, and I think it reshapes how we look at our society and shines a light on who the system is affecting … now when I go out and speak, I wait till the end to tell people that I was incarcerated, because I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t tell you you’re not going to assume that I was incarcerated.”

Brian, who went to prison in 2006 for selling drugs and is currently out on parole, also spoke of his experiences, in particular the difficulties of receiving help in jail.

“It’s hard to get to self-help programs in jail … you would think they would encourage you to go or make it mandatory but it’s the opposite … there are many times I’d go to AA and I’d be the only person in the jail there, and I know that’s common in many jails … you end up seeing the same group of guys at different meetings cause they’re the ones who are trying to make life better for themselves.”

Wheaton, Peaslee president, enjoyed both the debate and question and answer session. She felt the Rikers participants brought valuable insight and experience to the otherwise student teams.

“It was really fun for us to get to talk to the debaters as we were preparing as they had really unique perspectives … we had some arguments about why prison programs were inadequate and then the person on my team, an older guy who was a former opioid addict and have been in prison and jail a lot, was able to say, “Yeah, all these programs exist but they never advertise it. … It was really interesting just hear from somebody who’s actually had that sort of experience.” 

To close out the evening the judges returned to announce the debate results. After comparing the most convincing arguments from each side, public safety versus innocent until proven guilty, the panel came to a consensus decision in favour of the Government, stating that:

“The root causes of crime such as poverty, drug use and homelessness were touched on by both teams, but we feel the Government came closest to solving those problems,”  

Olivia Robbins ᾿21, co-president of Petey Greene, reflected that while these are important conversations to have, for her, the participation of former Rikers inmates was one of the most important aspects of the event.    

“I thought it was great to see these types of conversations happening on a larger platform … I was also excited to see formerly incarcerated debaters partaking in the event, because I think we tend to ignore the voices of those most directly affected by the carceral state. It’s important to value the voices of those who have lived experiences with incarceration – they definitely know more than I do.”

This debate formed the foundation of a continuous relationship between Peaslee and RDB, who plan to host such an event once every semester. Wheaton intends to conduct more outreach before future debates, involving professors and students of classes that focus on these issues. Peaslee also hopes to involve more student groups on campus involved in criminal justice reform and the Lang Center.

“It is a goal for Peaslee to do more of this type of public interface with the school,” said Wheaton.

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