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Carl Snyder, prison inmate and member of the Bard Prison Initiative Debate team, speaks on stage at a maximum security prison during a debate against Harvard College Debating Union. (Photo Source: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

New York Inmates Defeat Harvard Debate Team

If you were to attend a debate with Harvard undergraduates siting at one side of the stage and New York inmates occupying the other, chances are you wouldn’t bet on the prisoners.  However, thanks to a program run by Bard College called ‘The Bard Prison Initiative’, that perception is soon to change.

In fact, inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility were already beginning to make waves when they defeated the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York in Spring 2014, as well as a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont in April.  Now with a conquest over Harvard under their belt, the team has certainly proved to be worthy opponents.

The inmates had to defend a point of view that they wholeheartedly disagreed with: “Resolved: Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.”  The Bard team quickly established a strong case, saying that the schools attended by many undocumented children were doing so badly that students were effectively being warehoused.  They went on to suggest that if these ‘dropout factories’ with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of funding could deny these children admission, then non-profits and wealthier schools would step in an teach them better, details The Wall Street Journal.  The Harvard team later said how impressed they were by the inmates’ research and line of argument, with team member Anais Carell saying “They caught us off guard”.

Mary Nugent, the judge leading the veteran panel, notes that while it may seem tempting to favour the prisoners, there is a strict set of rules and standards that each judge must hold each other to.

“We’re all human.  I don’t think we can ever judge devoid of context or where we are, but the idea they would win out of sympathy is playing into pretty misguided ideas about inmates. Their academic ability is impressive.” said Ms. Nugent.

And ‘impressive’ is no exaggeration.  Unlike the Harvard students, the inmates don’t have access to the internet to help them prepare, and to get appropriate written materials they often need to first get prison administration to approve their request, which can slow down research considerably.  However they have perspective that college students on the outside may not, and one could even argue that they are more invested as well since they know the Bard program is an opportunity most inmates don’t have and the benefits that it can bring are potentially life-saving.

The program, which began in 2001, gives prisoners a chance to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences.  It currently has 300 students enrolled across New York state, and reports that less than 2 percent of its formerly imprisoned students return to prison.  Compare that to nearly 68 of every 100 inmates across the country getting rearrested within three years of release, and it should become apparent how advantageous the program is.

One of the inmates revealed after the debate that he would never want to keep a child from attending school, but he was grateful for the opportunity to attend Bard College while incarcerated.

“We have been graced with opportunity,” said 31 year old Carlos Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter. “They make us believe in ourselves.”

Harvard seemed to be very humbled by the loss, later posting on their Facebook page about the mid-September match.

“Three members of the HCDU had the privilege of competing against members of the Bard Prison Initiative’s debate program.  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.”

It’s a small yet significant step in changing the way we view and treat criminals.  Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed state grants for college classes for inmates, arguing that aiding them become productive taxpayers would ultimately save more money long-term.  However he stopped pursuing the idea after many Republican politicians countered that numerous law-abiding families struggle to afford college education already, and thus shouldn’t have to pay for criminals to get degrees since they lost that chance when they decided to break the law.  But maybe programs like this will help show politicians that the issue isn’t black and white, and maybe it will compel people to revisit ideas similar to the one put forward by Andrew Cuomo.

“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here,” said 31 year old Alex Hall (who was also convicted of manslaughter) before the debate. “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”

About Jürgen Rae

Jürgen Rae
Jürgen is an avid writer. His love of creating content is only surpassed by his love of consuming it. When he isn't surfing the web or hanging out with friends he can usually be found immersed in music production, sketching, or a good book. Contact Jurgen: jurgen.rae@youthindependent.com