Win to mark 25th year of prison debate


Black Studies (Criminal Justice) students Summer Rivers and Julanar Saleh recently won the BCU vs HM Prison Grendon Annual Debate.

Established in 1998, the annual debate is now in its 25th year and sees students debate against the inmates of HM Prison Grendon, the UK’s only therapeutic prison community for the treatment of serious sex offenders and violent offenders.

The students had to oppose the motion "This house believes that prisons will be made safer by restricting prison regimes and limited prisoner association". 

Lively discussion

The debate saw lively discussion on both sides. Summer and Julanar’s arguments gravitated around the detrimental effects of isolation on mental health, institutionalisation, and the importance of rehabilitation for residents' safety and public protection.

The debate is judged by the audience, made up of around 100 individuals including prison residents, students and prison staff. The students won comfortably with over 40 votes against 14 for the residents. 

Summer said: “Taking part in the BCU vs HMP Grendon debate was a unique, valuable and important learning moment. I was proud to be involved, not only because I challenged my own fear of public speaking in a relatively intense environment, but also because it was a mutually beneficial opportunity for the Grendon residents working towards rehabilitation. 

“A key component of Black Studies in Criminal Justice is the importance of community, and connecting and applying the knowledge we learn in university to people beyond the confines of the institution. Engaging in symbiotic learning to address issues associated with people at the margins of society has been really valuable.”

An educational milestone

Julanar said: “The Grendon Debate marked a milestone in my educational journey that I didn't even know existed. It was educational at every stage; from the moment I got off the coach to the moment I got back on. We didn't anticipate to win the debate and for me that was purely based on the nerves that I felt; the uncertainty regarding my ability to accurately convey my point and to get the audience to trust me. Needless to say, I was stressed.

“On the way there I was still working on my piece and trying to make it coherent and relevant. It didn't hit me that we were going to a prison yet. In fact, it didn't hit me until we were searched; until we stood in a room waiting for everyone to join us; until we walked in a near-single file around the fence; until the residents walked in; until the debaters opposite us started to share their experiences.

“This trip to the prison personified a group of society that I had only ever seen on TV. It created a space for sharing and highlighted their experiences. It reinforced some of my beliefs and changed my perspective. It showed me my limitations and motivated me to not take it so lightly. A question asked by a resident that struck me was where the discussion will go from here. This was more than a debate for him, and it has to be more than a debate for me.”

Lecturer in Criminology and Chair of the debate Dan Rusu said: “After an unfortunate three-year break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was brilliant to resume the annual BCU vs HM Prison Grendon debate this year.Summer and Julanar did a wonderful job on the day. We rarely win the debate so the fact that we did so on the 25th anniversary adds to the symbolic value of the event.“It was an honour to chair the debate on this special occasion, having been a student who also represented the University in the annual debate in 2015, and won!” 

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