The Harvard College Debating Union ran into an opponent that it didn’t expect on Friday in inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility on Friday. After about an hour of debating whether “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students,” the judges voted in favor of the inmates. The decision was met with thunderous applause from the audience, which included 75 other inmates.
The prison debate team and their supporters in the audience are enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative. This program (offered by Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) offers a rigorous, college-level education to inmates at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. According to the Wall Street Journal:
The Bard Prison Initiative, begun in 2001, aims to give liberal-arts educations to talented, motivated inmates. Program officials say about 10 inmates apply for every spot, through written essays and interviews.
There is no tuition. The initiative’s roughly $2.5 million annual budget comes from private donors and includes money it spends helping other programs follow its model in nine other states.
The prisoners prevailed even though they were competing with a handicap. Being incarcerated, they were unable to access the Internet for preparation for the debate. They had to depend on the prison administration to approve requests for books and articles to go up against the Ivy Leaguers in the three-on-three debate, a process which can take weeks. The inmates’ prowess for debate and their knowledge on the subject impressed the young Harvard undergrads. The Harvard kids seem to have underestimated their imprisoned intellectual combatants, as well. Harvard debater Anais Carell, 20, of Chicago said, “They caught us off guard.”
This wasn’t the Bard program’s debate team’s first victory over prestigious opponents. The WSJ writes:
The prison team had its first debate in spring 2014, beating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Then, it won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont, and in April lost a rematch against West Point.
The Bard program has done wonders for the recidivism rate of former New York inmates. In New York state, 40% of former offenders end up back behind bars. Program leaders say that of the 300 graduates that earned degrees through the Bard initiative, only 2% have returned to prison.
Check out the Bard Prison Initiative’s website, here.