“I’m trying to decide how I can be the most effective,” says senior Lauren Allen (SLA ’20), considering her plans after graduating this coming spring. In February 2019, Allen launched a debate team for incarcerated women in Orleans Justice Center (OJC) after working closely with prison administration, Operation Restoration, and Rikers Debate Project, a program that teaches debate skills to students in New York’s Rikers Island Jail. While the program is the first of its type in New Orleans, it is the fifth chapter of the Rikers Debate Project, whose model and curriculum has also been adapted by prisons in Connecticut, Newark, Maryland, and five other sites in New York. As Allen explains, “debate teaches one how to advocate for oneself, helps build confidence, and aids in the development of strong analyzation skills that assist in breaking down arguments, which in turn, helps others understand you and your point of view, and vice versa.”
Over the last year, Allen has learned an immense amount about the prison system and convictions in Louisiana, which has continued to shape her involvement and future plans. According to the Pew Research Institute, in June 2018 “the imprisonment rate in Louisiana was 712 per 100,000 residents,” becoming the state with the second highest rate of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. The national average for federal and state prisons is 450 per 100,000 residents, and these facts are some of the many reasons Allen was drawn to start this program, building on the skills she gained debating for the past nine years.
Debra Hammons, director of policy and inmate services at the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, has worked closely with Allen to establish the debate team. “The debate team brings a lot to the table for the female inmates. They are developing conflict resolution skills, and we are seeing a boost in their public speaking skills because they are called upon to present their point of view on an issue or question of the day,” explains Hammons. “These inmates have been in many situations where no one listens to them. But through the debate team, their voices are heard and that matters a great deal.”
When Allen began the project, more than twenty women expressed interest in participating. Due to schedules, releases, and movement between prisons, about four to eight women on average attend the class. “I want to help each woman be able to distinguish from opinions, facts, and things you can debate,” explained Allen. Each time the group meets, the women choose the topic they want to debate, which ranges from an experience that they have faced directly to issues in the news.
Allen and the OJC are both hopeful that the program can grow to also include men, and potentially youth. OJC administration has praised Allen’s presence and the program for not only increasing confidence in the women, but also making the space safer: “Lauren brings a lot of energy to the program. She brings her skills as a debater to help the female population resolve conflict in a more productive manner, as opposed to engaging in physical conflict. Choosing a more productive way to resolve conflict makes the jail safer for inmates and for staff.”
When her time at Tulane ends, Allen plans to continue to work in ways that lower incarceration rates across the country. “I became a communication major so that I could better understand the stances of other people and better communicate my own propositions,” Allen explains. “People who are incarcerated are largely stripped of most of their rights, and the way that they communicate is forced to change. I hope we are giving them tools to amplify those voices—they have so much to say.”