In 1946, at age twenty, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering.While in prison, he became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952, quickly rose to become one of the organization's most influential leaders.The subject was nothing less than the future of the planet.Inside a fortress of high walls, razor wire and guard towers, two teams were debating whether the United States should impose a tax on greenhouse gas emissions."Resolved," announced the first debater, James Keown."Global climate change fueled by the unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is wreaking havoc on our planet," he said. We must do better."As corrections officers watched closely, Keown and four other prisoners began the revival of the once-legendary debating society at the state prison known as MCI-Norfolk.Provides detailed accounts and analysis of his public debate experiences.), was an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist.In February 1946, at age 21, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 8-10 years in the Charlestown State Prison.
For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it.And, says inmate Alexander Phillips, it still offers transformation."It’s the ability to highlight our potential that we shouldn’t just be thrown away," Phillips said. The BC students -- none of whom had ever been to prison before -- had recently beat Notre Dame in New York, and they had scored a win at West Point too. So for Ronald Leftwich, for instance, the world of possibility excludes parole, but includes debate."It’s an opportunity for us not to only bring back the Norfolk debating team," he said, "but it’s an opportunity for us to show the world that we’re more than what our prison sentences say we are."Under the rules for this debate, the first speaker for Norfolk -- which was the “pro" team -- was followed by Kelvin Lin, a speaker for Boston College, the "con" team.“While we agree with our opponents that global warming is a serious problem, we strongly disagree that the carbon tax is a solution," Lin said."Our first major point against a carbon tax is that it will not promote the development of clean energy technologies."Like most of the BC debaters, Lin stuck to the podium and delivered his speech by reading it, sometimes too quickly.In the house were a couple hundred inmates — and the ghosts of a prison past."We needed to bring back the Norfolk Debating Society," Keown said. Our record is, like, 144-8."In his autobiography, Malcolm X called Norfolk "the most enlightened form of prison I have ever heard of."He and his fellow debaters achieved their record against teams visiting from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, West Point, Mc Gill and even the acclaimed Oxford University, whose undefeated 1959 string across America ended in Norfolk."It’s been 53 years — 53 years [is] way too long."Inmates come and inmates go, though the only way Keown and many other “lifers” will ever leave Norfolk is in a box. Indeed the belief that prisoners can be rehabilitated through education and debate was the foundation on which the Norfolk prison rose in the 1930s. Now for its first debate against an outside team in half a century, Norfolk had invited Boston College’s Fulton Debating Society. So the visitors had to pull their pockets out on their way in and submit to being searched, scanned and cleared before going through the mantrap and the clanging metal doors that announce you’re inside and under institutional control, which is the first priority of prisons. Four members of its debate team are lifers, three of them convicted of murders in the first degree.