Bridging the gap: Debating with passion from behind the Walls

Apr. 26—The Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) Speech and Debate team traveled to Huntsville Friday to battle incarcerated men who are members of the Lee College Debate Team.

The four-member team from PVAMU faced off against 10 inmates of Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), who are also students of Lee College. The event was made possible through the hard work of Craig Caudill — a former TDCJ inmate who changed his life and is now an employee of Lee College.

"My biggest accomplishment is that Lee College has asked me to come work for them and coach the debate team. The team was disbanded due to COVID but we are in the process of selecting a new team," Caudill said in an earlier interview with The Item. "I was cleared by the prison administration to enter the Walls Unit, to come once a week to teach."

Warden Kelly Strong watched the event unfold in the Chapel of the Unit.

"This event shows the guys that we believe in change," Strong said. "It also shows the other guys what potential opportunities are available."

Lee College began a program of courses in 1966 in cooperation with the Texas Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Dean Rundell and George Beto. Lee College Huntsville Center (LCHC) is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award the Associate of Applied Science degree. Certificates of Completion are also awarded in several technical programs.

The program has grown from 182 students the first year to more than 1,200 students. A wide range of academic and technical education courses is taught by the Lee College Huntsville Center at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — Institutional Division.

"I believe everybody in prison has the capacity to live a happy life if they fill themselves with joy. I started building trust with the prison administration 10 years before my release. Some of these individuals have been promoted over the years and observed my positive growth," Caudill said. "I don't want the individuals of Lee College including the Vice President and Dean Donna Zuniga or Warden Kelly Strong, who have both put their trust in me, to be disappointed."

Dr. Dorie J. Gilbert, Dean of the Marvin D. and June Samuel Brailsford College of Arts and Sciences at PVAMU, was in attendance and took in the experience.

"This is such a meaningful opportunity for our students; they represented the University well and I'm so proud of them and our debate coaches," Gilbert said.

Students that are members of the Debate Team include London Jackson, a Computer Science major; John Adeola, a Computer Engineering major; Sergio Alcala, a Music major; and Alaysia Davis, a Pre-Law major.

The debate was held in two sessions, with staff from Lee College and Windham School District also in attendance.

As each team set timers, gave their speech, buzzed in clarifications about the discussed topics, the small audience in attendance was impressed and clapped for each team.

The judges for the event included Clint McRae, Walker County Sheriff; Dylan Bullock, former debate champion; Aron Kulhavy, City Manager; Lt. Wade Roberts, Huntsville Police Department; Tim Johnson, KSAM; and James Jones, with TDCJ and Windham.

"I am truly grateful for the opportunity to bring debate to the Huntsville Unit and the participation of everyone involved," said Caudill, who remains on parole until 2035.

"This is the beginning of much success to come from this program. Lee College of Huntsville and TDCJ are laying the foundation for new and creative ways to rehabilitate the criminal justice system. A huge thank you to everyone who has helped facilitate this monumental event."

Contact Brenda Poe at