Bard Prison Initiative: N.Y. Inmates Beat Harvard Undergrads In Debate Competition

| by Jared Keever
Harvard CampusHarvard Campus

A debate team, made up of three prisoners from Eastern New York Correctional Facility, recently beat a team of Harvard undergraduates in a debate over public school access for undocumented students. 

In the match-up earlier this month that The Wall Street Journal calls “unlikely,” the prisoners were asked to affirm the resolution, “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” It was not a position they personally held, according to the paper. 

After an hour of debate, the judges announced the inmates had won.

The three men on the prison team are participants in the Bard Prison Initiative, or BPI. The debate was reportedly put on to showcase the performance of the program. 

The BPI, according to its own website, “creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences.”

“The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study,” the initiative's website claims. “The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.”

Carlos Polanco, 31, who was part of the prison debate team, told The Journal he felt fortunate to be a part of the program. 

“We have been graced with opportunity,” he said. “They make us believe in ourselves.”

Alex Hall, 31, who was also on the wining team, said they had to overcome a lot of hurdles. 

“We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard,” Hall said.

Inmates aren’t allowed to use the Internet for research and prison administrators have to approve requests for books and articles. 

But through all of that, the prison team was well-prepared, said Harvard team member Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.

“They caught us off guard,” Carell said.

Judge Mary Nugent said that the prison team made a strong argument that the Harvard team didn’t fully respond to. She seemed dismissive of notions that the prison team might have been favored by the judges, pointing out that each of the three judges had to justify their votes to one another based on rules and standards. 

“We’re all human,” Nugent said. “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.”

The win at Harvard is not the team’s first success. Last year they beat a team from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont. The BPI team did lose a rematch against West Point in April.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Bard Prison Initiative

Photo credit: Roman TM/Flickr, angela n./Flickr