How to find truth in today's partisan world

San Quentin State Prison inmates Wayne Boatwright (center), Forrest Jones (left), and Nelson Butler talk at an Ethics Bowl debate at San Quentin. (Photo by Jonathan Chiu, San Quentin News)
San Quentin State Prison inmates Wayne Boatwright (center), Forrest Jones (left), and Nelson Butler talk at an Ethics Bowl debate at San Quentin. (Photo by Jonathan Chiu, San Quentin News)
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Author: 
Scott Rappaport

“Thinking is not agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.” —Robert Frost, poet

Twice a month from last September to February, UC Santa Cruz philosophy lecturer Kyle Robertson woke up early, dropped his kids off at school, drove north for one hour and fifty minutes, crossed the Richmond Bridge, and went to San Quentin.

He would park in the prison lot, walk past a gift shop selling art created by death row inmates, and enter the main gate, where he would sign in at the first of three consecutive checkpoints. Finally entering the prison yard, he would walk past prisoners playing on the basketball courts and others engaged in games of chess, to get to the education center of the prison.

Robertson was there to teach a course in Ethics Bowl—a non-confrontational alternative to the traditional competitive form of debate—in collaboration with the Prison University Project (PUP). At the same time, he was also teaching an undergraduate course and coaching a team in Ethics Bowl at UC Santa Cruz. He soon suggested and arranged a very unusual debate between seven philosophy students from UC Santa Cruz and a team of prison inmates from San Quentin. It took place in the prison chapel—in front of an audience of nearly 100 inmates.

“This is the first time there’s been a debate inside San Quentin,” says Robertson, who served as moderator. “And it’s one of the first Ethics Bowls that’s ever happened in a prison.

“It was a smashing success, but it was no small feat logistically,” he adds. “Because in the prison environment, everything runs on a tight schedule, and control of that schedule is entirely in the guards’ hands, not mine. We had to alter the format a little—for example, we made a 10-minute break in the middle of the round, because all of the inmates had to file outside for a count at that point. All inmates in the state of California are counted around 4 p.m., whether they are relaxing on the yard or competing in an Ethics Bowl.”

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