MIT team debates MCI Norfolk inmates on the opioid epidemic

‘Norfolk has a history of excellence in debating’

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MIT’s debate team faced off against the team of Massachusetts Correctional Institution — Norfolk, a medium-security prison, about the opioid crisis Sept 23.
Natasha Haverty

MIT’s debate team faced off against the team of Massachusetts Correctional Institution — Norfolk, a medium-security prison, about the opioid crisis Sept 23. MCI Norfolk extended the invitation to debate, and MIT accepted.

The debate centered around the resolution: “pharmaceutical companies should be held criminally responsible for their role as contributors to America’s current opioid crisis.”

The Norfolk team was assigned to support the stance, and the MIT team to oppose it.The MIT side brought up pros of opioid development, including fostering innovation and providing pain relief.

Daniel, a debater on the Norfolk team, started running a “calculation” on the crimes of pharmaceutical companies. “Please forgive me if i’m a little slow in my tabulation –– it’s not like I went to MIT or anything,” he said.

“I know we’re from MIT, but I promise you, not everything we say is just numbers,” Lily Jordan ’19, a debater on the MIT team, said, and was met with laughs in the audience.

“No wonder we’re losing the war on drugs –– we’re aiming at the wrong targets,” Daniel said, after stating that street level dealers can be prosecuted for homicide, while pharmaceutical companies can’t. His statement was met with murmurs of approval from the audience.

MIT’s team suggested that suing pharmaceutical companies for opioid abuse would be akin to suing alcohol companies for domestic violence under the influence.

Alex, on the Norfolk team, rebutted: when a gun kills someone, “the gun did exactly what you expected it to do,” but when pain-relieving medicine hurts you, something is wrong.

The MCI Norfolk debaters shared personal stories regarding the opioid crisis.

David, the Norfolk inmate who moderated the debate, mentioned that his high school was “ravaged” by the opioid crisis, and that he could name at least 20 people he knows who were affected by the crisis.

Another Norfolk debater, James, held up a picture of his sister during his speech, explaining she injured her back years ago and is now consumed by opioid addiction.

Ronald, another Norfolk teammate, argued that pharmaceutical companies should be tried as criminals by jury “just as the majority of the people in this room had to do because we broke the law and harmed someone else.” Ronald concluded: “What makes a pharmaceutical company any different?”

MIT’s debate team won by a few points, due to disqualification of one Norfolk speaker who went overtime. However, the MIT team shared the sentiment that they would have rather won without the technicality. One Norfolk debater said the biggest thing he wanted to say to the MIT team was “thank you.”

The Norfolk team appreciated the collaboration, “despite the social boundaries that seek to divide our humanity,” David said at the closing remarks of the debate. No matter who wins, “you have already won the respect of this community,” he said to the MIT visitors.

The captain of the Norfolk team said in an interview with The Tech that he was “excited to restore these relationships” and that “we don’t get a lot of these opportunities.” He mentioned he was glad to get a chance to show “that we are much more than our prison records.”

“Norfolk has a history of excellence in debating and it is really an honor to participate with them,” said Esparza.

“The debate topic was very personal to many of [the] people in Norfolk so getting to debate something that matters a lot in a personal level was also very ... memorable,” Esparza said.

“My loyalties were divided!” said Lee Perlman, the director of the MIT Prison Initiative, professor who teaches classes at MCI Norfolk, and one of the debate organizers. “But it was very gratifying that the MIT debate team got to experience how intelligent and articulate my students in prison are.”

History of MCI Norfolk debating team

On May 2, 1937, MIT was the first team to debate MCI Norfolk’s debating society, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson, as well as Natasha Haverty, an NPR journalist writing a book about the prison’s debate team.

The March 15, 1938 edition of The Tech features coverage of the second ever MIT-Norfolk debate.

After a period of dormancy, MCI Norfolk only recently revived its debate team, according to Haverty.

Background on MCI Norfolk

Many of the people in MCI Norfolk are lifers. “There are approximately 1,500 inmates housed at MCI Norfolk, approximately one-third of those inmates are serving life sentences for murder. Many of the inmates who are housed at MCI Norfolk are long-termers,” said Christopher Fallon, director of communications at MCI Norfolk.

One inmate asked The Tech if it was “nerve-wracking” for students at MIT to come into a prison setting given “all the stereotypes.”

“However, contrary to what is depicted in movies and with an inmate population that has committed a high percentage of very violent crimes, the prison is considered very safe,” Fallon said. “The inmates walk around freely behind the wall and have jobs, attend classes, attend programs, play instruments and take part in representative government behind the wall.”

“In addition, inmates at MCI Norfolk may attend college classes and earn degrees while incarcerated. We know that the more education that an inmate receives, the less likely they are to recidivate,” Fallon said.

“Norfolk is the best medium security prison in the state, with the most humane living arrangements and the most educational and therapeutic programs,” Perlman said. “I've been in other institutions where inmates talk about how they hope to eventually get to Norfolk.”

“The housing units have rooms and were modeled like a college campus with separate buildings around a quad. There is no central dining hall, the inmates eat in their houses,” Fallon said.

Inmates, however, do not have internet access. So, since the Norfolk Debate team didn’t have access to internet, they had to find their sources by pouring through books and magazine archives looking for information and quotes relevant to their debate topic.

The debate was organized by by Lee Perlman, who directs the MIT Prison Initiative, which offers the opportunity for both incarcerated students and MIT students to take classes in prison.

“The men at Norfolk do the work very assiduously and are very interactive in class. I really love interacting with them. And many of them have really come to love 'the life of the mind'. It's very rewarding to participate in that with them. I think I've experienced the dignity and excitement of intellectual life there in a very different way than anywhere else,” said Perlman.

Note: Only the first names of the prisoners are used in this article, due to communications policies at MCI Norfolk.