Rikers Island is not known as a place for intellectual engagement, where rational heads prevail. But it was within the confines of the notorious New York City jail that inmate Shawn O’Donnell, 38, found what he says is the key to his future as a criminal justice reformer: the Rikers Debate Project.
The two-year-old program has taught the naval veteran how to think critically and argue logically. These were skills he lacked in the past, when a heroin addiction drove him to committing crimes to feed his habit. With two months to go before his release, O’Donnell said debating has given him a means to confront the difficulties of re-entering society. “On this side of the wall, most arguments are won or lost by who can scream the loudest or who is bigger and tougher, who has more people behind them,” O’Donnell said in an interview with City & State. “(Debate) gives me a chance to not just improve myself and clean myself up, but have a place to show it.”
Those skills helped present a softer side of Rikers on July 30, when O’Donnell and three partners debated whether pretrial detention should be eliminated. The rhetorical battle, at an event held within the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island, is part of programming that aims to reduce violence among inmates and redefine incarceration as a more rehabilitative experience.
Due to widespread reports of violence and sexual assault against prisoners by other inmates and even guards, New York City is working towards closing Rikers within a decade. Eliminating cash bail is one strategy to decrease the number of people in pretrial detention.
A coin toss determined that O’Donnell and his debate partner attorney Nicole Triplett would argue for eliminating pretrial detention. In his opening statement, O’Donnell urged his audience of about two dozen inmates, corrections officials and representatives of the Rikers Debate Project to consider how pretrial detention ultimately works against justice.
“Coming here you think youʼre going to get fair process. Youʼre going to get a lawyer. Youʼre going to get your your day in court,” O’Donnell said in the debate. “The problem is with institutions like this theyʼre going to use that as leverage.” O’Donnell argued that the unpleasantness of a jail stay incentivizes even the innocent to plead guilty and get out. “Itʼs an easy choice,” he said. “Youʼre going to admit to something you didnʼt do.”
But debater 38-year-old Raymond Lopez, who is currently on parole, and his partner attorney Nicole Fortier countered that pretrial detention is necessary in order to maintain public safety. Those accused of violent crimes like murder and rape need to be detained to prevent any potential harm to people’s “mothers, fathers, children,” said Lopez.
Locking someone up pretrial does deny them their due process, nor presumption of innocence, Lopez argued. “We’re not going to shove someone into prison with no evidence,” said Lopez. “That would be absolutely egregious and highly unconstitutional.”
The judges awarded the win to O’Donnell’s team by a 10-6 vote, but the debaters will rhetorically fight again another day. The project aims to stage one debate per month in addition to regular classes that teach the debaters critical thinking skills, conflict resolution and public citizenship.
It’s part of programming on Rikers that offers up to five hours per week of enrichment to 95 percent of inmates there, according to the city Department of Correction. Educational opportunities and work programs are part of ongoing reforms that are accompanying the transition from Rikers to borough-based facilities.
About $38.1 million was allocated in fiscal year 2018 for enrichment programs at Rikers. The de Blasio administration increased funding from $17.8 million in 2016 to $38.9 million last year, according to the department.
Following the summer 2016 establishment of the Rikers Debate Project, debate programs have also taken hold at facilities in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. with plans to expand to Boston, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, according to Josh Morrison, executive director of the Rikers Debate Project.
Morrison said in an interview that that the July 30 event presents a “manicured” version of Rikers that contrasts with the day-to-day struggles of inmates, many of whom have yet to be convicted of a crime. “As much as we appreciate the Department of Correction working with us, and as much as we appreciate their desire to grow and change ... we really need to limit to the absolute largest extent possible people being incarcerated at all before trial.”
The daily realities of violence and “atrocity” are what Shawn O’Donnell aims to leave behind once he gets released this fall. He said in an interview that he plans to stick with the Rikers Debate Project once he gets released. He wants to help with lobbying efforts aimed at securing more state funding for prison enrichment programs, as well as sharing his own insights with future inmates interested in debate.
These type of activities would help him avoid the cycle of drugs, crime and incarceration that had defined his life in recent years, he said. But in order to reshape his life he will have to stick with the debate skills that have allowed him to reflect more critically about his own life and how he ended up at Rikers. A couple years ago, he was a down-and-out Iraq War veteran living on the streets. But learning how to debate while on Rikers led the the New Jersey native to realize that a career in advocating for criminal justice reform could be ahead for him.
“We have to live, learn, think and act a certain way. But when we have the chance to do something like this, weʼre going to take full advantage of it,” he said. “Thereʼs a chance I could turn this into an actual occupation which is amazing coming from as low as I was to as high as I can go.”
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that four inmates took place in a July 30 event at Rikers. In fact only one current inmate particpated.