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Debate Team Makes Pit Stop at Essex County Correctional Facility

Debate team members (l to r): Head Coach Willie Johnson, Debater Jaye Ross, Debate Team Director Chris Kozak, Debater Devane Murphy, Coach Carlos Astacio, Debater Andres Moncult, and Debater Michael Kelly (photo by Annie Virkus)

In late April, the Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) Debate Team faced off in a debate over felon voting rights at the Essex County Correctional Facility (ECCF) in Newark, New Jersey. The debate was one of several programs established by ECCF’s Social Services Department, which provides educational and social services to its inmate population.

Competing against incarcerated individuals at the facility, RU-N debaters Devane Muphy, Mike Kelley, Jaye Ross, and Andres Moncult argued against granting voting rights to ex-felons who completed their sentences. The prisoners argued in the affirmative.

Spectators included inmates, the warden, and Annie Virkus, Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA).

“The experience at ECCF was eye-opening for our students and gave them an invaluable experience of being a part of a larger community,” Virkus noted.

After their visit, Warden Charles Green sent a letter to the team reflecting on their time at the facility, stating, “The Rutgers University Debate Team has increased the morale, as well as brought hope to a place of hopelessness for over forty federal inmates. Rutgers University’s engagement with our inmates has affirmed to them that the community has not forgotten about them and that you have not forgotten about them.” 

The debate team hopes that this is just the beginning of its relationship with the ECCF debate program and has begun collaborating with ECCF to establish a regular debate series at the prison.

“It was one of the best events that we have attended in years,” said Debate Team Director Christopher Kozak. “Every once in a while you have experiences that remind you why you committed to a profession in teaching, and this was one of them. We are very excited to return and engage in more debates.”