PKD Finals, The prison-industrial complex is the American Apartheid

In much the same way that we were on the right side of the resolution in quarterfinals, we were definitely on the wrong side of one. A little background, the resolution more than anything was talking about the mandatory minimum laws put forth by the Reagan administration. Crack cocaine, which is more easily accessible to people of low socioeconomic status and in particular African-American communities, for some random (or not so random reason has a mandatory minimum prison sentence if on your possession waaaaaaay higher than regular cocaine. Most people speculate that’s because regular cocaine is very popular among white CEOs. Regardless of the intent of the law, it’s definitely had clearly disparate racial outcomes, with African-Americans being incarcerated far more than white people.

So being on Opp while debating against the top team from Morehouse College, a historically black institution, was not exactly the best way to start.

The first speaker went up and rattled off at least 20 statistics (the entire Morehouse team of probably ten kids and a coach prepped together), citing all of the things I mentioned in the background and the resultant implications, namely huge economic setbacks as well as disenfranchisement due to being unable to vote as a felon.

On our first speech we started off with two observations of the resolution. First, they had to prove that a prison-industrial complex even exists, with clear evidence of prison owners having a direct influence on lawmaking. Secondly, referencing the original usage of the word in South Africa, we said that any discrimination had to be intentional and explicit. We then made two off-case positions on how they fulfilled neither of those.

After that we went on-case. We didn’t really have a whole lot to say, other than that they didn’t prove a direct causal link between any of the laws and the result incarcerations. We also said that the reason why so many African-Americans were in prison was due to historical and socioeconomic factors. Specifically, we referenced how the GI Bill after WW2 excluded African-Americans from affordable housing, meaning blacks were not able to access the largest source of wealth a person ever owns, setting back generations of inherited wealth. We also said that black communities were less likely to have parents and leader figures that had gone to college, meaning there are fewer support networks for high school students which translates to African-American students being less likely to go to college or even pursue scholarships that they’re qualified for. However, this second part came across as “Blacks don’t value education,” and we got a lot of dirty looks and even “for shamed”. For the record, this is definitely a thing and not racist conjecture.

They came back and said that proving something explicit would be impossible, but the intent is clearly demonstrated in the crack versus cocaine laws, of course lobbying happens as prisons are a 1.3 billion dollar industry, the GI Bill isn’t important since we had integrated units in WW2, and we were just being offensive by saying the thing about college. They also extended across a lot of their statistics, because there wasn’t really a whole lot we could say in that regard.

Other than basically just reclarifying our positions and hammering the idea that they’re not demonstrating any causality between the laws, we also added that if prison owners really had influence with congressmen, they wouldn’t exert that influence along racial lines and would just jack up sentences on everyone to get as many people in prison as possible.

In the end, we ended up losing the round. We’re not really sure why or by how much as they didn’t announce the judging decision specifically in the awards ceremony or give us ballots from the final round. In all honesty, I as an individual believe we won the round on the flow. In the final speeches, they mostly just recited their statistics and said that they had clearly demonstrated the racist intent of the law and its negatives consequences. They said that in the face of all their statistics, the judges had to vote for them. They also flat out called Kevin and I personally ignorant and prejudiced, which struck me as a low blow, but I understand the value of ethos as a debater. In our final speech, we highlighted the three burdens they had to meet independently: to demonstrate a prison-industrial complex exists, that the law was explicit and intentional in its racism, and that there is a direct causal link between the laws and the outcome statistics they cite. I could see how they won the intentional point, but I think they essentially dropped the other two. The never had an answer to why prison owners would prefer to see racial discrimination rather than sentences jacked up on everyone, suggesting the absence of a prison-industrial complex. They also never had any sort of response to the actual content of our GI Bill argument, which framed all of their arguments as correlation rather than causation. However, we never had a good response as to why crack should have such an obscenely higher minimum sentence when compared to regular cocaine, and I could see how in the right context that could be interpreted as a demonstration of intention, a prison-industrial complex, and direct causation, though I don’t personally find the argument to be persuasive.

The reason we probably lost was in the rebuttals. We tried too hard to win everything on the flow rather than just isolating the burdens they never really addressed, and I think the most important issues were muddied by minutia and not conveyed clearly enough in the speech. Our opponents were absolutely fantastic speakers and really brought home the terrible things that happen in the status quo as evidence of deliberate and systemic discrimination while strongly appealing to the judges’ emotions. Debate is a communication event, and they were without a doubt the better communicators in the round.

Nevertheless, Kevin and I went out swinging. We had many people come up afterwards to tell us that the round was one of the best they had ever watched. It was certainly one of the best we’ve ever participated in. Kevin and I were ecstatic to have made it as far as we got, and we were so happy to make the nation’s debate community know (and maybe fear) St. Olaf College.


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