Linacre and Oxford students debate at Young Offenders Prison, London for Black History Month 

Following in the footsteps of last year’s visit, a group of 11 students from Oxford University, made their way to Her Majesty’s Prison and Young Offenders Institution, Isis (Isis Prison) in the South-East of London on Wednesday the 23rd October 2019. The visit was coordinated by the Linacre African Network at the invitation of Father Valentine Erhahon, the Roman Catholic Managing Chaplain of Isis Prison; Charlie Abbott, the head of equalities of the Prison, and Lewisham Senior Probation Officer at Naden Friend.

A Jollof Welcome

The visit commenced at noon with a decadent offering of jollof rice, a traditional West African dish, and chicken kindly prepared by a dozen prisoners undertaking a cooking course and on the verge of completing their sentences. They later took part in the debate as either debaters or judges. Throughout lunch, Oxford students, prisoners, and prison staff mingled and shared ideas for the looming debate in the prison’s multi-faith room. This room serves as a bit of a haven for prisoners, Father Valentine explained, because it offers a comfortable environment for the prisoners to exercise their faith and reflect.

Upon completing our meal, additional prisoners, staff members, and guests joined us in the multi-faith room for the formal program moderated by the Prison’s Governing Governor, Emily Thomas. The afternoon activities were launched by an introductory address from Father Valentine who explained the importance and impact of the 2nd Annual Oxford-Isis Prison Debate. Recalling last year’s debate, he acknowledged the importance of renewing the collaboration and ambitiously suggested that the next debate takes place in Oxford. 

What followed was a fervent and melodic keynote speech by Oxford student Jelani Munroe to a crowd of 126 attendees. It focused on celebrating the glories of the Black Man of our generation, from struggles to success: “I want to pause to recognize how we become struggles that we inherit from complicated families and communities. In the process, stereotypes seem to be fulfilled in spite of black men being everything but. […] I feel certain that the glories of black men are not just in being exceptional, but also in elevating our ordinary lives to express a positive set of values to the next generation”. We closed Jelani’s speech by singing Song of Redemption, the title track of a documentary on incarceration in Jamaica. He later led the prisoners and guests in crowd-sung renditions of  All of Me (John Legend), and Redemption Song (Bob Marley).

With Prison staff

The Fierce Debate

The Prison’s Governing Governor Emily Thomas then launched the Westminister-style debate where Oxford students and prisoners alike debated this year’s controversial motion: “The black man is the stereotype created of him”, based on Immanuel Kant’s assertion: “The fact that someone is black from head to toe provides distinct proof that he is inherently stupid”.

Those on the proposition side of the House included four Isis prisoners, joined by the following Oxford students or alumni: Julian Chieza, Jelani Munroe, Ruth Nyakerario, Nwamaka Ogbonna and John Pougué Biyong. The opposition benches included Farah Alammari, Emmanuel Mawuli Abalo, Naomi Mburu, Ndjodi Ndeunyema, Gladys Ngetich and Femi Nylander, joined by four Isis prisoners. 

The debate began with two-minute openers from each side, followed by vibrant, one-minute arguments by the members of each side of the motion. 

Fierce and passionate points were fired from both sides, catalysed by the diversity of race, age, educational background, and life experiences present on both sides. A panel of “Law Lords” composed of senior probation officers from Lewisham, prisoners, prison volunteers, guests and prison staff, offered comments on both sides throughout the debate.

The winners of the debate, the proposition side, were chosen by a panel of aptly dressed prisoners, donning traditional African clothing and even a judge’s wig. Among their key points, were statistics showing that the black community is more prone to poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, criminality. While acknowledging that these statistics are the results of institutional racism fueled by political actions, biased educational systems and unfair job application processes (among others), they argued that these statistics reinforce the ‘black man’ stereotypes in the mind of the unaware. Moreover, because the black man is still too often assessed against the stereotypes, he is still bound to the stereotypes, even when he invalidates them.

The debate ended with a closing address of Father Valentine who referred to Desmond Tutu assertion: “Do not raise your voice. Improve your argument”. This was followed by an exchange of gifts between the Oxford students and Isis Prison. On behalf of the staff and prisoners of the Prison, the Governing Governor gifted Oxford an Isis plaque. Oxford reciprocated the gift with a cocktail of inspirational books, including “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “Black and British” by David Olusoga. 

The Debate Chamber

The Debate Chamber

Visiting the Wings

Father Valentine then led the group of students inside two wings of the prison: one for newly-arrived prisoners and a regular wing. We also got to see the inside of some prisoners’ rooms. The atmosphere in the wings was very dynamic. Prisoners were all busy playing pool, foosball, doing gym exercises, watching TV, reading, and chatting. Without promoting the prison life, the emulation constantly occurring in the wings gave us a far less hostile, and more human, welcoming picture than the one often portrayed in the media. Overall, the physical proximity and lengthy discussions that we had with the prisoners were enlightening. 

We would like to thank Father Valentine, Charlie Abbott and the Isis staff for coordinating the logistics of this event, including our transportation, the delicious meal, the spirited debate and the visit of the wings. We would also like to thank all of the prisoners and guests who truly created a dynamic ambience for the debate. We look forward to the 3rd Annual Isis Oxford debate, and to increase interaction throughout the year between Oxford students and Isis prisoners. 

Truly this was an event that had a great impact on all involved!

By Naomi Mburu and John Pougué Biyong, on behalf of the Oxford Debate Team.