In a debate between Harvard College students and those from any other college, some might guess that the students would win. And if the other side was a group of inmates at a maximum-security prison? Maybe even more so.
That would be a mistake.
Inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility defeated the prestigious Harvard debate team in mid-September as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program run by Bard College to provide college education to qualifying prisoners, according to the Wall Street Journal.
If you knew the prison debate club’s record, you might have voted for the inmates. They’ve defeated a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. (They lost a rematch against West Point, and it’s become something of a rivalry.)
The prison club had invited the Harvard College Debating Union to participate.
Inmates had to defend a point of view with which they fiercely disagreed, a common practice in debate competition: “Resolved: Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.”
After the debate, Carlos Polanco told the Wall Street Journal that he would never want to keep a child from attending school but that he was grateful for his chance to attend Bard College in prison. “We have been graced with opportunity,” said Polanco, 31, who is in prison for manslaughter. “They make us believe in ourselves.”
The Harvard club seemed to take the loss gracefully.
“Three members of the HCDU had the privilege of competing against members of the Bard Prison Initiative’s debate program,” the group posted on its Facebook page. “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.”
Inmates face any number of challenges preparing for debate, including a lack of access to the Internet and a requirement for prison administration approval of necessary written materials, which can delay access to information.
But they have perspective that college students on the outside may not have. They know their Bard education is an opportunity most inmates do not have, and they know it can be life-saving.
The Bard Prison Initiative, which has 300 students enrolled across New York state, reports that less than 2% of its formerly imprisoned students return to prison. By comparison, nearly 68 out of every 100 prisoners across the country are rearrested within three years of release, with more than half returning to prison.