The Harvard University debate team won the 2014 world championship. But then, a few weeks ago, they lost to a most unlikely opponent. And they have no regrets.
Three inmates from the Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Napanoch, New York, invited them by for a friendly competition – and won.
This isn’t the first time they’ve prevailed, either. Previous opponents who lost to the institution’s debate club include the US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Virginia. The West Point competition has since developed into a spirited rivalry.
For the most part, time spent in prison is wasted – a life of boredom and humiliation often punctuated by sporadic violence.
In contrast, some prisoners who find themselves incarcerated near Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, can apply to take part in a radical program based upon the belief that prison can be a place where people can work toward becoming responsible citizens by using their prison time to educate themselves.
To be considered for entry, applicants must write an essay and go through a rigorous interview process.
The college prides itself on approaching inmate education as uncompromisingly as it approaches that of its campus students. “Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,” the founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), Max Kenner, told the Associated Press. “Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty.”
The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) relies upon approximately $2.5 million in private donations each year. Some of the money goes toward the establishment of similar programs in nine other states. Governor Andrew Cuomo has offered a proposal to provide grants that would increase the state’s commitment to the concept of college for prisoners.
“The most important thing that our students’ success symbolizes is how much better we can do in education in the U.S. for all people,” Kenner told The Huffington Post. “Our program is successful because we operate on a genuinely human level.”
Statistics show that of the more than 300 alumni who earned their degrees behind bars, fewer than two percent returned to a life of crime within the next three years.
According to figures from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the figure in NY state as a whole, by comparison, is 40 percent.
The initiative offers the inmates a pathway to any of several degrees. Some 15 percent of the all-male inmates at the facility are enrolled, and many achieve remarkable success. Some have gone on to further their studies at Yale, Columbia and other prestigious universities. Successful graduates can be found working in many diverse fields, and many ascend into management.
Last month’s debate centered on the issue of whether public schools should be allowed to turn away the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally. The inmates effectively argued the position against Harvard, and a panel of judges awarded them the win. The men on the Bard-educated team are all serving time for manslaughter.
The Harvard undergraduates were very impressed by the encounter and posted this message on Facebook:
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend,” they wrote. “And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the eastern New York correctional facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”