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Auburn student prisoners debate team of future lawyers

In the Auburn Correctional Facility’s gray stone chapel, 50 incarcerated students and prison staff waited alongside dozens of Cornell faculty and staff April 26.

They were eager to hear the results of who won a debate between three men serving time at Auburn and a “dream team” of Cornell Speech and Debate Society alumni now attending the nation’s top three ranked law schools.

The maximum-security prison that opened in 1817 is widely known for housing the first electric chair, producing New York state’s license plates and for creating the “Auburn System.” Many 19th century prisons followed the system, which required inmates to live in silence.

Men serving sentences in Auburn no longer live in silence. Three of them showed they have something to say and know just how to say it, in thanks, partly, to their ILR School Argumentation and Debate class.

Taught by senior lecturer Sam Nelson and Cornell debate staff, the course is offered via the Cornell Prison Education Program, through which students can receive credits and associate degrees from Cayuga Community College.

Auburn Correctional Facility Superintendent Harold Graham said, “It is a wonderful program, and we do not want to lose it.”

Michael Hoffler, on the prison team with Sheldon Johnson and Demetrius Molina, said the debate class “made me a participator instead of a spectator in public discourse, which I believe will benefit me greatly upon my re-entry into society.”

Molina said he gained “wisdom, confidence, respect, humility, appreciation and the ability to think logically about a problem and weigh out both sides of the equation.”

The experience also hurt, he said, because it showed him his potential. “I can compete with the smartest and most educated students in this country, but, yet, I chose to throw my life away.”

Cornell Prison Education Program Executive Director Rob Scott said the prison class benefits Cornellians. “The participation of the guys here at Auburn has been a privilege to learn from.”

The Cornell team included three alumni law students: Emily Zhang ’11, Stanford Law School; Ryan Yeh ’13, Yale Law School; and Paul Gross, MILR ’14, Harvard Law School.

Each of the speakers had seven minutes to argue their side of the topic: “This house believes the government should widely restrict the automation of labor.”

Cornell defended the proposal; Auburn opposed it. Positions were chosen in advance with both sides preparing for both arguments a month in advance.

Zhang argued that ending automation would allow people to live better “by doing things for yourself … dignified work and people thinking for themselves.”

Johnson criticized the proposal as relying on predictions and not historical precedent by arguing technology has continuously improved lives: “Automation allows workers less work hours, more time with family and no more dangerous work environment.”

Yeh said future automation is different than past technological improvements: “The next wave is different than previous waves, with artificial intelligence and robots that think for themselves. Look at all the scary movies of robots that kill us from ‘Terminator,’ ‘WALL-E’ and ‘iRobot.’”

Molina, from the opposition, fired back at Yeh’s comment: “Human annihilation will not happen. It is something that we see in movies, and someone was watching too many movies.”

Gross said of the future of technology: “The difference is that the problem is different. It is the problem of machines running themselves, and we will not be involved in the problem-solving.”

Hoffler called out the other side for using “fearmongering” tactics and the dangers of stopping progress. “They want us to freeze time and die … press a pause button like this is a game or a movie … they want to restrict imagination and education, and it does not make sense at all,” Hoffler said.

Judges Tom Benson, president of the International Association for Senior Debate and president emeritus of Green Mountain College; Donna Ramil, associate director of ILR International Programs; and Delphia Shanks-Booth, a Cornell government doctoral candidate whose focus area is private funding of prison reform programs, awarded the first ballot to Cornell.

The next ballot went to Auburn but in the final vote, Auburn won.

Hearing that, the incarcerated students erupted into cheers to celebrate their intellectual victory over some of the brightest debate minds produced by the Ivy League.

David Ticzon ’18 is a freelance writer for the ILR School. 

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Rebecca Valli