We at the Rikers Debate Project hope you are all staying as safe and sane as possible. We are reaching out because our incarcerated students need your help! We know that the current health crisis is difficult for everyone, but our students are among the most vulnerable, and staying connected is critically important during these unprecedented times. Since the pandemic began, correspondence from our students with vital information about jail conditions has been covered in ProPublica, The Appeal, and the Marshall Project, among other sources. To continue serving our students remotely, we are seeking to raise $10,000 to print and mail materials. Tax-deductible donations can be made through the Rikers Debate Project website here.
As you may know, the Rikers Debate Project is a volunteer-run organization that gives people affected by the criminal justice system a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives by teaching the skills of competitive debate. Our work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Detention centers are hotspots for the spread of the virus. Due to unhygienic and crowded conditions in facilities, our students are among the most vulnerable, and many have written to us voicing the widespread fear within their facilities.
View what one of the inmates wrote about the conditions here.
All volunteer-led educational programs in correctional facilities have been suspended since mid-March, and we have transitioned to a correspondence course format. Each week, we mail students an update about COVID-19, a survey about conditions in their facilities, a packet with articles and discussion questions on a timely topic, and worksheets with a skill-based lesson students can work through on their own.
Of course, we expect that our correspondence course will impart valuable critical thinking and advocacy skills, just like our in-person classes. In addition, with visitation and programming suspended indefinitely, our students are more isolated than ever. The correspondence course maintains a line of communication to remind incarcerated people that we have not forgotten them, and helps us learn about conditions inside prisons and jails.
At a minimum, this project allows us to share information from the outside and stories from inside -- our students' voices have already been amplified by, ProPublica, The Appeal, and the Marshall Project, among other sources. At best, this project will help lead to meaningful change -- after a letter from a group of our students at the Harris County Jail was covered in the Houston Chronicle, jail management agreed to double individuals' soap rations and place jugs of soap in every dorm. Likewise in New York, messages from our students are an important part of ongoing efforts to push City Council and the Department of Corrections to improve conditions on Rikers Island and in other city jails.
We have already had great success engaging our students, who continue to thoughtfully complete coursework. Here is just one sample of a student's work to provide insight into the initiative. For context, one of the fundamentals we teach our students is the A-R-E (Assetion-Reasoning-Evidence) method for formulating arguments. Another key component of our lessons is arguing against what you believe. You will see that our student had a bit of fun in completing these worksheets here.
Additionally, our students have been vocal in their appreciation for continued communication and materials from RDP amidst the chaos going on in their world. View one of their notes here.
We are now seeking to raise $10,000. That amount will allow us to send materials to 250 students incarcerated across a dozen states for the next three months. Can you contribute? Can you ask your friends and employer to do the same? We know that this is a challenging time for everyone, but every little bit helps – our students continue to communicate their gratitude for every mailing they receive. Donations can be made through the Rikers Debate Project website here. We are a 501(c)(3), and all contributions are tax deductible.
The Rikers Debate Project Team