Joseph Leeson-Schatz, Binghamton University’s winning debate director, coaches clubs from the elementary to collegiate level. His newest team of debaters are being coached from prison.

Through the National Prison Debate League (NPDL), Leeson-Schatz was connected to a group of five women at the York Correctional Institution (YCI) in Connecticut. Over the course of 15 weeks, Leeson-Schatz taught them debate skills and techniques over Zoom, preparing them for a competition against debaters from Cornell University. The NPDL is a nonprofit organization that provides debate classes to incarcerated people, connecting them with collegiate teams and allowing them to engage in formal competition while equipping them with skills to effectively express themselves and respectfully disagree with others.

The organization was founded by Daniel Throop, who learned debate while serving a 19-year sentence in the Massachusetts prison system. (6) Since his release two years ago, he has been running the league and bringing educational, communicative spaces to incarcerated people.

Beyond learning how to formally debate, Leeson-Schatz says that the program teaches self-advocacy. He hopes that learning these civil dialogue skills will help incarcerated people communicate and find jobs upon their release. Leeson-Schatz added that the group of women he taught found the lessons empowering and humanizing.

“To be able to sort of have their thoughts valued in that way and have the Cornell students listen to them or respect them and answer their arguments in a way that they weren’t [used to] having,” Leeson-Schatz said. “And they were called by their first names, but normally they’re just called by their last names. So there was a very humanizing aspect to it that they definitely took away from it. They also felt that their skills in their organization, their ability to express themselves, get stronger.”

Having coached students from elementary school to college, Leeson-Schatz said the incarcerated individuals were especially thankful for his time and noted that the participants were dedicated to their work. He shared how apologetic they were when they didn’t get the opportunity to complete it, even if it was for reasons out of their control.

“I had to learn how to adapt because I assume that people have the ability to communicate and work with their partners, but they were not able to work with each other outside of that hour meeting because they were housed in different facilities, and they weren’t allowed additional study halls,” Leeson-Schatz said. “So being able to figure out how to adapt, [and] how to do partner prep work in a situation where your partners can’t get together brought on challenges in new ways to sort of innovate how I go about teaching.”

Leeson-Schatz will return to teaching lessons at YCI in the fall, but this time hopes to expand his class to 10 or 15 people.

While running debate programs in Binghamton city schools, Leeson-Schatz has been dedicated to bringing debate clubs to students who would not normally have access and says that working with the NPDL has been crucial in accomplishing that goal. With the authority of the organization, he has been able to get in contact with the Broome County Correctional Facility, where he hopes to one day bring Binghamton University students in person one hour a week to work on debate skills with incarcerated individuals.

Students can get involved by joining the debate team or taking RHET 354: Argumentative Theory, a class where Leeson-Schatz teaches public speaking and debate skills, preparing students to be able to participate in competitive matches. He also says that students who are particularly interested but don’t want to join either can reach out and let him know that they are passionate about prison politics and want to help.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Stephanie Meshberg, a sophomore majoring in English who is currently taking RHET 354, said. “You can definitely tell like he really enjoys teaching the subject and he wants the kids to learn the subject and learn how to debate and learn these public speaking skills. You can tell he’s really passionate about it and it’s not your ordinary class. You walk in, and all of a sudden you’re expected to debate why cats or dogs are better. It’s such a good experience [and] I would definitely recommend it.”

Some of the students involved in RHET 354 will be the first Binghamton students to participate in an NPDL initiative as part of a debate that will face a team of incarcerated people in Finland. The debate will take place over Zoom this Thursday and the speeches will be live translated with a new automated software, bridging the teams across countries, institutions and languages.

“I really want to get debate to as many people as possible,” Leeson-Schatz said. “People are in prisons who have been wrongly incarcerated and are being dehumanized. […] People who may not be great at expressing themselves can have those tools so that way they don’t find themselves in these same situations, or they could convince people that they’re not actually the ones who committed a crime or anything along those lines.”