By Dian Grier, LCSW
California Correctional Institution
On Nov. 13, 2017, an unprecedented event took place behind the walls of California Correctional Institution (CCI). Six California State University Bakersfield (CSUB) students from the Philosophy Department arrived to compete in a College Ethics Bowl against the CCI inmate debate team. The CCI team won by 10 points in their first-ever debate.
The judges consisted of three Philosophy professors from the university. Ethics Bowls are similar to debates, but each side can take either side of the issue. So one team can agree with the opposing team and add to the argument. CSUB’s team went on to a state level debate in San Diego after completing their debate at CCI. The students told CCI that what they learned from CCI’s team helped them prepare and find areas in which they could improve. The students were allowed a tour of the prison and had a discussion with the inmate team about what it is like to be in prison. The students said they were grateful for the experience.
With the approval of CCI’s Warden, William “Joe” Sullivan, and CEO, Rhonda Litt-Stoner, and under the supervision of the Chief of Mental Health, Dr. William Walsh, clinician Dian Grier, LCSW, has implemented a unique program within CCI’s mental health department to create meaningful experiences for inmates. A few of the benefits of this program are to help prevent mental health issues as well as assist with reducing symptoms for those with a mental health diagnosis.
Along with the debate groups, the initiative also has a drama group that performs once a year. Like the debate team, the drama group works to foster good mental health and personal growth. And though both groups can teach inmates empathy, enhance listening skills and promote anger management, critical thinking, self-esteem, creativity and a sense of empowerment, each group appeals to widely different personality types.
The goal of both groups is to provide its members an opportunity to view issues from other points of view, which is also the goal of rehabilitation and mental health stability. So while a member is working toward that end-goal, they are also learning more than they realize, as witnessed after their debate win.
After the competition, inmates said they felt “human again.” They said that they were not just a number, but a person who could accomplish a goal with their team members.
The recent win against CSUB was a major accomplishment for the men who participated, but the real win is the effects of the new program that are reaching inmates in a new and innovative manner.