From left: Anita Volpe, Tatyana Tomlinson, Victoria Scott, Daniel Porter, Chandler Dugal and Shaun Libby from the Maine Department of Corrections debate team. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department Of Corrections / Maine Public

On one side: a pre-law student, a business management student, a graduate student in peace and reconciliation and two master’s degree students, one in public administration and another in youth development representing the Maine Department of Corrections. On the other side: five engineering, economics and pre-med students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You’re all about to witness a remarkable display of both intellectual ability and social diplomacy in action,” said Daniel Throop, founder of the newly created National Prison Debate League.

At issue: whether term limits should be required for justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. MIT argued in the affirmative. Luca Braculj, a third-year poli-sci student from Croatia, opened the arguments.

“Justices essentially stay on the court until they either retire or pass away,” Braculj said. “Additionally … they are serving longer and longer terms. As (sic) University of Chicago Law School professor Tom Ginsburg writes in 2021, the average Supreme Court Justice tenure went from 15 years before 1970 to 25 years after 1970.”

The result, he said, is that a single appointment can lock in the majority of the court for a long time.

“The proposition at issue today represents a grave threat to the foundations of our Republic,” said Chandler Dugal, a resident of the Maine Correctional Center. He laid out five reasons to oppose term limits. Among them, that they would undermine judicial independence and the federal government’s separation of powers. He pointed to the Nazi Party’s rise to power as an example.

“Frederick Reuter of the Wisconsin Law Review tells us that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of judicial independence was to eliminate life tenure for the German Supreme Court,” he said. “Now, elimination of life tenure was not the sole reason that the Nazis were able to control the German judiciary. But it was the first step they took to achieve that end.”

The timed arguments and rebuttals continued for more than 90 minutes as a virtual audience looked on. And the decision from the five judges was decisive.

“The decision is a 5-0 for the Maine Department of Corrections, a 5-0 win for the Maine DOC. Congratulations on an outstanding debate and thank you so much for the opportunity to judge it,” said Jarrod Atchison, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University who also serves as director for the school’s nationally recognized debate team.

“What the audience is seeing today represents the power of preparation,” he said. “These students are not just speaking off the cuff.”

Instead, he said, these are well thought out arguments that come with educational opportunity and application. Providing more of those opportunities is the goal of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, which partnered with the National Prison Debate League to host the recent event. Executive Director Ved Price said education is important not only for people who will leave prison but for the prison culture itself.

“It deters violence, and it gives people some freedom even though they’re not physically free, it gives them the ability to be mentally and psychologically free and to develop themselves in whatever direction they choose and there’s no limitations on the mind,” he said.

To finance education in prison, residents must rely on philanthropic grants and university scholarships or pay out of pocket. State funding for education in prison, Price said, is typically pretty slim. But estimates suggest that every dollar spent on correctional education saves about $5 in reincarceration.

In Maine, Deputy Corrections Commissioner Ryan Thornell said the department has tried to strengthen and promote college opportunities in recent years. He said about 10 percent of the population is enrolled at any given time.

“So, upwards of 150 individuals enrolled in some level of college education courses. Typically, around 115 to 120 of those are in degree-seeking programs and others are taking, you know, one or two courses that just might be offered outside of a degree track,” he said.

Thornell said the debate was a chance to show what students in prison are capable of doing. The co-ed team included members from four facilities who practiced virtually with the help of outside coaches and then met in person to participate in the live event. MIT team member Jessica Wang said word spread that her opponents would be tough to beat.

“So going in, we were like a little bit intimidated and we’re like, ‘This is going to be a hard debate,’ and I think you all definitely lived up to that expectation,” she said. “So, it was a really cool experience, in my opinion.”

Daniel Throop, who has organized other prison debates in Massachusetts, hopes to expand the National Prison Debate League to other correctional facilities around the country. Using education for critical and abstract thinking, he said, has the power to tear down walls.

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.