I Rebuilt Malcolm X's Old Prison Debate Team

The audience responded with a chorus of laughter as I won points for my team—and for incarcerated people everywhere.

by Daniel S. Throop; illustrated by Nick Gazin
|
Jun 8 2018, 4:00am

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“I can’t believe they lost!” I blurted out to confused looks from my five cellies while reading a recent edition of The New Yorker.

Thinking my outburst was likely baseball-related, one of the guys asked me, “Did your Pirates drop another one, Throop?”

“No,” I replied. “Norfolk lost to Harvard.”



With all due respect to the Crimson, I was stunned to learn that the Norfolk Prison Debating Society had been edged in a recent debate on the topic of eliminating the Electoral College. That’s because I’m the prisoner who rebuilt and trained the team after years of inactivity, and I knew first-hand how talented they were.

Back in the day, the Norfolk debate society was the stuff of legend, with a pedigree that included the great Malcolm X as a member. It was such a dominant force in debate that from 1933 to 1966 it compiled a win-loss record of 144-8 against some of the best college teams across the Northeast.

Unfortunately, those memories turned to myths after a half-century of dust settled over the Norfolk prison stage.

It felt strange reading about my former teammates, now that I reside in a different prison. But I was happy with Jill Lepore’s accounting of our team’s historical travails. What the article didn’t capture, though, was that our official relaunch in 2016 was itself years in the making, and spanned two Massachusetts prisons.


“See you at the club tonight,” my close friend J.P. said as we made our way inside from the yard at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The year was 2006 and “the club” was our New Horizons Toastmasters Club.

With a tile floor and a chalkboard running along one wall, our classroom’s only other distinguishing features were a small bank of gym-style lockers on the back wall, a single wooden lectern, a few battered folding tables and a stack of blue plastic chairs. It wasn’t much, but it was where we’d meet and hone our communication skills every Friday night from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

With no access to college programming at the prison, the Toastmasters club served as a hub of intellectual activity. The debates, speech contests, and training sessions were epic, and created such a buzz that soon everyone wanted in on the action.

By 2008, the line to get into our club was growing longer every week. Lamar, our powerfully built sergeant-at-arms, had to play the role of bouncer at the door just to ensure core members could get in. Some nights we had to turn away more people than we let in.

As club president, I eventually submitted a proposal to prison officials requesting use of the gym for our debates. They approved, and that spring we held a club-level debate on the issue of immunity for illegal immigrants.

The following spring we hosted Bridgewater State College in the first collegiate-level debate in our prison’s history. “Represent” was the common refrain from our peers as men from the cell blocks poured into the gym and wished us well. “We got you,” was the self-confident reply from my teammate Clarence, who we called “Big C.”

This time, the wooden bleachers filled so quickly that rows of plastic chairs had to be set up on the basketball court to accommodate all our guests.

To demonstrate our range, I had accepted the pro-incarceration side of the issue to be debated. So when the professor, in the role of moderator, announced that the BSC team would be arguing that restorative justice was the best method of dealing with cases of domestic violence, we found ourselves, quite paradoxically, arguing against the progressive resolution in front of a large prison audience.

With both anecdotal and statistical evidence delivered in waves by our team—Big C, Rich, Cinco, J.P., and myself—our opponents never saw what hit them. We made their plan of holding restorative justice “stakeholder meetings” between victims and their abusers sound downright criminal by the time we were done.

The judges agreed, and the gym thundered with applause as we were declared the winners. We shook hands with the college students and agreed to a rematch.

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Our second debate against BSC saw the college students supporting the premise that 5 million dollars of federal stimulus money would be most effective at reducing crime in Massachusetts if invested in preventative community programs.

We, of course, disagreed, and argued the money would be better spent on prison programs like education and job training, which have been proven to reduce recidivism and, therefore, crime.

It wasn’t even close.

The third debate featured a new wrinkle—the teams were mixed, both prisoners and college students.

Karter Reed, a gifted member of our club, was elected captain of the “pro” team, whose task was to affirm that, “The lack of pardons and commutations in Massachusetts sends the message that people aren’t redeemable.” He was sharp, and I knew he’d be hungry, because an untimely trip to solitary had cost him a chance to be in our last debate.

On first rebuttal for the “con” team, I began with a direct shot: “To be absolutely clear, my teammates and I agree that more pardons and commutations should be granted. In fact, we should begin right now by pardoning Mr. Reed for his entire opening argument!”

Big C and J.P. did their thing, too, but it was our transplanted BSC teammate Priscilla who really stole the show. She spoke with gusto, asserting that, “The simple fact that recidivism rates are not 100 percent proves that people are obviously redeemable.”

Before leaving, Priscilla said, “You should go to college when you get the chance.” She saw me, in other words, as redeemable now too.


I left the debate team in the capable hands of J.P. and Big C as I requested and received a transfer to MCI-Norfolk later that year.

Arriving at Norfolk in 2010 was a major upgrade in facilities. Founded as a “community prison,” the place was designed around a central quad flanked by a large school on one end and a program building on the other.

Norfolk offers college degree courses through the Boston University Prison Education Program, an auditorium for events, and a representative prisoner government called the Norfolk Inmate Council. This allowed me to evaluate and recruit new talent as I set about rebuilding the Norfolk Prison Debating Society in 2011.

The crew I assembled was like the Ocean’s Eleven of wordplay, with a strategist, an orator, an emcee, a researcher, a specialist, and two guys whose strength was timing. We trained hard, drafting arguments in our cells and testing them against each other while walking laps around the yard. “Self-defeat is the worst way to lose” was our mantra.

In December 2016, the debate team finally reclaimed its stage thanks to Boston College’s Fulton Debating Society. Journalists from NPR and WBUR joined a packed auditorium to cover the historic second act, as the moderator announced: “Resolved: that the United States should impose a carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Debating an elite opponent on a complex subject like environmental policy, without internet access, may seem like an unrealistic challenge. But feeling like you have one hand tied behind your back isn’t that bad when you’re accustomed to having both of them there.

We made an ecological case, arguing in favor of the tax, while our opponents went with a counter based on economics. They were strong, so I added some theatrics to my rebuttal.

I donned a white surgical mask that I’d borrowed from the maintenance department, as I stepped to the lectern and declared: “After listening to our opponent’s first two arguments, we may have to check the carbon dioxide levels in the auditorium today. Allow me to clear the air for you...”

The audience responded with a chorus of laughter as I won points for my team—and for incarcerated people everywhere.

We all invested a lot of time, energy, and faith into the debating club’s rebuilding process, especially during those really lean years when it looked like we might never get a chance. At one point, a prison official denied my proposal to reorganize the team with a terse, “Debate is not an academic program.”

If Boston College’s team knew how many debates I had to win off-stage just to get onto it, they probably wouldn’t have agreed to the match.

But when asked about the experience, college debater Kelvin Lin said it best: “Whatever their crimes, they are people in the end.” Hearing such a sentiment voiced openly, as far as I’m concerned, was the real win for our team—which is now 145-10 and counting.

Daniel S. Throop, 41, is incarcerated at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where he is serving an 18-to-20-year sentence for charges, including aggravated rape, stemming from a 2004 armed robbery. He was transferred out of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk in 2017.

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