The first thing that strikes you are the guard towers, then the razor wire-topped fencing with metal signs mounted along every 30 feet of chain link. The signs depict a black lightning bolt knocking down a lone silhouetted figure. Peligro. Fatal voltage.

But inside the California Correctional Institution, a cluster of five distinct but interconnected prisons at the edge of the Cummings Valley, southwest of Tehachapi, it is not so much the sights as the sounds that shake the senses: The soft, mechanized clank of sliding iron doors locking into place, and then the cool, flat silence of compliance. 

In such a setting, almost any interruption is welcome.

And so it was last week when CCI officials escorted 10 visitors into the prison's chilly, linoleum-floored reception center. This was the Ethics Bowl, a debate of sorts pitting a team of incarcerated men against a small group of philosophy students from CSU Bakersfield. The university's Kegley Institute of Ethics has been sponsoring this competitive interaction for three years now, with each side having triumphed once previously. This would be the rubber match.

For CSUB, they've all been road games.

The whole premise represents a fascinating but obvious irony. Convicted felons aren’t supposed to understand the concept of ethics, are they? That's how they got here, right? Out on the streets, they had cast aside principles of right and wrong for money, power or conquest — usually with need-for-belonging and survival thrown in.

But the distinctly permanent sound of metal against metal can do strange things to a man the first time he hears it behind him. It can represent the sound of sober reckoning or, ideally, an initial grasp of ethically grounded reason. That's how it was for inmate Ryan Metier.

"It all changed for me the first day I got to prison," said Metier, who has only a few weeks left to serve. "It was instant."

The philosophy students, Gabriella Hernandez, Quinn Thurley and Eric Pytak, were cordial and encouraging toward their denim-wearing opponents, Chris Moore, Kelly Bland, Jose Rubio, Brandon Johnson and Metier. This was semi-serious; bragging rights were involved. (Metier reminded the crowd, which included 30 fellow inmates and assorted prison employees, that CSUB had eked out its previous victory by just a single point.) But this day would really be about interaction and identity.

"This kind of event changes you. It transforms you. It gives substance to your life," said inmate Moore, who said he grew up in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, an area the locals call the Jungle.

"You forget the sound of laughter. The norm becomes sorrow. This kind of event brings things out of you again. It normalizes things. It gives you that little glimmer of hope," said inmate Rubio.

"Sometimes prison can make you feel all the same (as everyone else)," said inmate Metier. "This helps you feel like individuals."

The actual competition was based on two recent, real-life scenarios, and each team was assigned the task of discussing the ethical issues associated with each.

One case was that of an Alabama woman, Marshae Jones, who was indicted on a homicide charge after she, five months pregnant, started an altercation with another woman, Ebony Jemison. Jemison, licensed to carry a firearm and claiming she feared for her life, fired a "warning shot" that ricocheted off parking lot asphalt and hit Jones, killing her fetus. Because Alabama law designates fetuses as persons, Jones, determined to have started the fight, was indicted on manslaughter charges. Those charges were ultimately dropped.

The other case looked at the so-called "callout culture" and focused on a controversial revelation by actor Liam Neeson. He told an interviewer that 40 years earlier a close friend had been raped by a black man and that he, Neeson, had reacted by roaming city streets with a crowbar for a week or more, looking for a black man, any black man, he might beat in retaliation. Neeson said he came to senses before he acted, regretted his reaction and remembered the lesson. Social media, however, became inflamed with disgust. The question: Does this "callout culture," cited in other cases as well, have actual value? 

The teams debated the 14th Amendment, personhood, free speech, federalism, disenfranchisement, constructive dialogue and public hysteria. And then the decision fell to the judges — three university professors, a prison psychologist and a journalist.

Nate Olson, an assistant professor of philosophy and associate director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics, tabulated the scores in as dramatic a fashion as he could. But it wasn't close: The final score was 263 to 247 for the inmates, with three of the five judges favoring CCI and the other two copping out and calling it a draw. Technically, then, a 3-0 shutout for the blue crew.

Then they all shook hands, patted backs, took photos and exchanged words of encouragement. And the inmates, including those in the audience, felt a little more like the individuals they once were.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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