Taking debate Beyond Bars  

Debating Matters completed an exciting and uplifting project with prisoners of HMP Bronzefield 

Debating Matters Beyond Bars returned in August. We ran a project at HMP Bronzefield, the biggest women’s prison in the UK, which demonstrated that the rigorous, well-researched and impassioned debate known to all those who take part in the competition is at home as much in prisons as it is in schools.  

Using a selection of the Debating Matters Topic Guides, the prisoners conducted extensive research and training into the debates selected for the competition. Being asked to consider important debates happening in the worlds of politics, science, art and culture, they gained a valuable sense of perspective, and learned important skills in engaging in civil debate.  

 After their training, the participants engaged in two days of tough debate, featuring Debating Matters judges. The group stage debates featured discussions on ‘We should accept the risk inherent in contact sports’, where teams clashed over whether the risk and danger of such sports is important to building character, ‘Social egg freezing empowers women’ where the participants at the female prison took on this contentious issue, and ‘Unhealthy lifestyles are not the business of government’,  where teams clashed over who should decide on the content of our diets. 

 At the Championship Final there was a special ‘Question Time’-style discussion. The panellists were Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman, broadcaster and author Timandra Harkness, environmentalist Martin Wright and Don’t Divide Us director Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, chaired by journalist Ella Whelan. But it was soon time for the final debate, with the two finalists putting in a tremendous display of tough but well-considered debate on the topic ‘Britain should pay reparations for its colonial past’, with the major clashes taking place on the question of whether restitution is appropriate for historical wrongs such as colonialism.  

 When Debating Matters first entered the prison, we encountered a range of people with very different backgrounds as well as educational levels. But through the process of Debating Matters training, the participants equipped themselves with the intellectual and political resources to engage in productive debate with one another. For many, the improvement was tremendous, with many taking an active role in preparing themselves and their teams for the rigours of competition. Assisted by the dedicated and inspiring educational team inside the prison, they honed their arguments and research.  

Ivan Mulinder, education manager at HMP Bronzefield, said at the final event: ‘Well done to everyone who took part. The research that you undertook over the last few weeks and the ability to think on your feet has been tremendous – you should all feel very proud. Thank you to the judges for volunteering their time in making this such a successful event. This is an important competition and the skills you have learnt will be invaluable during your time in prison and beyond.’ 

One prisoner who took part said: ‘I have loved this experience and learned a phenomenal amount. I had to do lots of reading and research on my chosen topic and the challenge was condensing that into a three-minute presentation. I loved being asked questions and being challenged – it really was a healthy debate!’ 

Debating Matters judge Timandra Harkness said: ‘It was an honour to be invited to the final of Debating Matters Beyond Bars at HMP Bronzefield, and an inspiration to see the prisoners debating. They set a standard of reasonable disagreement and rational argument to which many in public life should aspire. Also – congratulations to the kitchen trainees for an excellent lunch!’ 

 After seeing the positive effect the Debating Matters programme had on the participants’ skills and mindset through the process of the programme, Debating Matters hopes to return soon to the prison environment. In the meantime, the staff and prisoners of HMP Bronzefield will be sure to continue the debate with a range of other Debating Matters resources.