Harvard University's award winning debate team got schooled by a team of New York prison inmates.
Inmates from Eastern Correctional Facility in New York can participate in an initiative by Bard College called The Bard Prison Initiative. This program allows prison inmates to take classes through Bard and, ultimately, earn a college degree. Inmates enrolled in the program formed a debate club which has gone up against teams from The University of Vermont and West Point ... and won. In fact, a sweet rivalry has sprung up between West Point and the inmate team, and the teams now face off annually.
What do the members of one of the foremost college debate teams have to say about their loss? They posted the following on their Facebook page after the event:
Well played, Harvard.
The Bard Prison Initiative is quite the program. It currently enrolls about 300 students in six prisons in New York State. The program is competitive, with about ten inmates applying for each one open spot. The courses are taught by Bard professors as well as visiting professors from other schools, and courses are taught entirely in person, not online. In terms of preparing for the debate, this means that, unlike their opponents at Harvard who have the web at their fingertips, the inmates had to conduct their research old-school style. They had to officially request printed items through the prison -- a process that could take more than a week or two.
Many may wonder why prisoners have access to a Bard College education; they are, after all, paying a a debt to society. Upon looking at the recidivism statistics, it is easy to see that the program serves the greater good. Fewer than 2% of those who earned their degrees while in prison return to prison within three years of release. The typical rate for prisoners not participating in the program is 40%.
The debate that toppled Harvard was an interesting one, and the Bard team was tagged to defend an argument with which they did not agree:
They won the day, Judge Mary Nugent told The Wall Street Journal, because:
The Bard team made a strong case that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused. The team proposed that if “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.
She also stated that the "Harvard College Debating Union didn’t respond to parts of that argument, though both sides did an excellent job."
The take-away from all of this is two-fold. Educating prisoners and giving them the true skills they need to get off the path of crime and prison is far more beneficial than enabling the vicious cycle of crime and incarceration. Additionally, just because one has ended up in prison does not mean they do not have the ability to right the ship if shown how.