Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.
The showdown took place at the Eastern correctional facility in New York, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition.
A three-judge panel concluded that the Bard team had raised strong arguments that the Harvard team had failed to consider and declared the team of inmates victorious.
“Debate helps students master arguments that they don’t necessarily agree with,” said Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Bard prison initiative, told the Guardian. “It also pushes people to learn to be not just better litigators but to become more empathetic people, and that’s what really speaks to us as an institution about the debate union.”
The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.
One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.
The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.
The prison team has proven formidable in the past, beating teams from the US military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. They lost a rematch against West Point in April, setting up a friendly rivalry between the teams. The competition against West Point has become an annual event, and the prison team is preparing for the next debate in spring.
Kenner said the Bard prison initiative, which has expanded since 2001 to six New York correctional facilities, aims to provide inmates with a liberal arts education so that when the students leave prison they are able to find meaningful work.
“The purpose of work is not to reform criminal justice per se,” Kenner said, “but to engage and to relate to people who are in prison, who have great capacity and who have that dedication and willingness to work hard, as we engage any other college students.”
Among formerly incarcerated Bard students who earned degrees while in custody, fewer than 2% have returned to prison within three years, a standard measurement period for assessing recidivism. This is exceptionally low, when contrasted with the statewide recidivism rate, which has hovered for decades at about 40%.
The Bard program, which is funded through private donors, offers more than 60 academic classes each semester across its satellite campuses located at six medium- and maximum-security prisons in New York state. Inmates with a high school degree or equivalent apply for the program with written essays and a personal interview. Admission is competitive, with nearly 10 inmates applying for every spot available.
While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.
Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.
“We have been graced with opportunity,” Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves.”
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