Victorious prison debate from 1950’s resurfaces at Iwasaki exhibit


Brooke Northup

Mneesha Gellman is the director of the Emerson Prison Initiative and organized the Disrupting Mass Incarceration Exhibit.

By Katiana Hoefle

Seeking a deeper history of Emerson College’s work in prisons, Emerson Prison Initiative faculty members sifted through the Iwasaki Library’s archives. 

They found documents explaining how former Emerson professors Coleman Bender and Haig der Marderosian coached the Norfolk Prison Colony debate team, which won 268 competitions and only lost six against schools such as Emerson, Harvard University, and University of Oxford in the mid-1900s. 

Mneesha Gellman, director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, and Robert Fleming, executive director of the Iwasaki Library, decided they needed to showcase these findings. Less than a year later, on Nov. 21, 2019, and with the help of the Emerson Forensics Team, the Iwasaki Library presented the Disrupting Mass Incarceration Exhibit.

“Emerson College has a history of social change in prison that was in danger of being forgotten,” Gellman said in an interview.

Gellman began the presentation by describing the information EPI found in the archives regarding the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk. Jennifer Williams and Christina Dent from the Iwasaki Library made informative posters on this history and hung them in the library. 

“A superintendent [Howard B. Gill] was appointed at the prison in Norfolk, which is a state prison, that was really focused on a philosophy of reform and cultivation of the mind rather than punitive punishment,” Gellman said. ”It was a distinct shift from retributive justice or punishing justice toward a more restorative approach.” 

Gill created many prison initiatives, including the Norfolk Prison Colony debate team. However, after Gill retired, Norfolk prison did not sustain many of his policies, including the debate team. 

The event included free ice cream provided by Ben & Jerry’s, posters showing a timeline of the newfound history, a debate demonstration, and various speakers, including EPI faculty members Gellman, Cara Moyer-Duncan, and Deion Hawkins. 

Emerson faculty teach liberal arts courses to people who are incarcerated in a Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord as part of the initiative. Currently, Emerson has enrolled 20 students in prison in EPI.

“Central to the Emerson Prison Initiative is the access to high-quality education, an education that recognizes the potential of and nurtures each human being is a fundamental human right,” Moyer-Duncan said.

Moyer-Duncan read one of the quotes of the students in prison named Ray during the event: “For 25 years the answer ‘this is all I know’ was the reasoning for my incarceration. EPI has allowed me to realize prison is not all I know.”

Gellman included a vignette by an alumnus who participated in a debate with the Norfolk prison team in the 1950s about the impact of rock and roll.

“I was trying to point out that the suggestive language in the songs was problematic by playing them, and the whole audience started singing the words so loudly and getting rowdy that the guards had to stop them,” Gellman said, quoting the alumni. “The story made the front page of Variety and the Daily Worker. It was a memorable experience.” 

Gellman hopes to reach out to other alumni in the future that were also involved in the Norfolk prison project to contribute more to the Emerson archives.

This information, despite its availability in the library archives, was new to many faculty members including Hawkins, director of the Emerson College Forensics Team.

“We have a long-term goal to restart the debate portion [with other prisons’ debate teams],” Hawkins said. 

The Forensics Team, which acts much like a debate team, gave a demonstration of the style of debate the Norfolk prison team used. Sophomore Sara Hathaway and junior Jenna Dewji debated the topic of whether access to education is a right that should be given to prisoners. They clarified, however, that this was all for a demonstration, and both believe that education is a fundamental right.

EPI also provided pamphlets at the exhibit to give more in-depth background on their organization. They included photographs of cells in various states around America as well and quotes from students and faculty members that were involved in the prison initiative class offered by Emerson. The students were only quoted by their first names due to the prison’s privacy regulations. 

Although the program only has two student volunteers, Gellman said that EPI intends to make student involvement in the program available for credit.

“As faculty, as students, [and] as administrators at a leading liberal arts college that prides itself for its sense of justice, we have a responsibility to use our privilege to expand access to higher education,” Moyer-Duncan said. “I can think of no better way to use our knowledge, to use our resources, and to use our time than to heed the calls of incarcerated people who are asking for a transformative education that will allow them to imagine and to realize different possibilities for themselves.”

Assistant Arts Editor Melanie Curry did not edit this article due to conflict of interest.