The Norfolk Prison Debating Society, from 1933 until the 1980s, competed successfully against such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. By 1959, its record stood at 201 wins and 69 losses. As part of Howard Belding Gill’s model prison community program, the debate team was but one part of a larger, conspicuous prisoner rehabilitation effort at Norfolk. When debates took place, they were sometimes reported on by regional and university newspapers.
One paper in particular had close ties to the Norfolk debate team: The Colony. This twice-monthly prisoner-run periodical related, of course, the results of the debates, but also provided a wider insight both into the intellectual lives of the prison population, and also into the rehabilitation ambitions of Norfolk Prison.
Begun in 1930, at about the same time as the founding of the debate team, the paper relayed information on the internal functioning of the inmate community. Although it was primarily meant for the inmates, its reach extended beyond the walls of Norfolk. Friends and family of those incarcerated, as well as those in the general public with an interest, could subscribe and keep abreast of the goings on within the confines of the communal penitentiary. Topics ranged from piano lessons to twelve-step programs to avocational items for sale. The paper included poetry, essays, a weekly calendar of events, and music and film columns, indicating a vibrant creative and intellectual existence. Moreover, the connection to the debate team did not cease with the reporting of results; many on the staff of The Colony were also debaters.
In 1957, inmate and Debating Society member Tom Vigrolio took over the position of editor of The Colony. The editorial announcing his arrival cited his credentials as a writer and his positive effect on Walpole Prison’s The Walpole Mentor. The announcement identified the goal of increasing circulation of the paper, and promised that the next issue would be “the best one yet: jam-packed with news items, penal legislation, sports, educational and avocational activities.” The language and content of the announcement implies that those on its staff treated the paper as a serious journalistic endeavor. Indeed, Vigrolio, throughout his editorial career, emphasized the importance of rehabilitating prisoners and providing the essential life skills that allow individuals to fully participate in society. In 1967, in an article published in the McGill Law Review, Vigrolio argued for the necessity of remaking the penal institution into a system that focused on redeveloping and retraining the individual in hopes of facilitating his transition back into society. Perhaps not coincidentally, Montreal’s McGill University had been one of the many universities that sent their own teams to debate at Norfolk.
Other inmates, like Norman Herr, also played the dual role of newsman and debater. Herr, who was convicted of check fraud in the 1950s, joined the debate team when the topic was rock ‘n’ roll. Fittingly, he wrote about music for the paper. Herr described Norfolk as “almost like a university instead of a prison.’’ The articulation of this perception, along with Tom Vigrolio’s writings on the penal system, were echoed by many associated with the prison and its message of rehabilitation.
Commissioner of Correction Arthur T. Lyman stated that penal institutions must embrace programs that focus on rehabilitating prisoners, arguing, “It is not enough to put prisoners in a cold quiet cell and leave them there, since sooner or later they must return to society.” Like Vigrolio, he emphasized the importance of prison as a rehabilitative system, one that should provide the incarcerated with necessary skillsets that would allow them to function as a meaningful part of society once released from the penal institution.