Harvard University is notoriously famous for its supremacy over other colleges when it comes down to further education and extracurricular, with their debating team in particular being head and shoulders above others in the country. However months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team lost to an unsuspecting opponent. Three men from the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York.
The showdown took place at a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard college, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Despite being disadvantaged in a number of areas, the prison debate club has a record that rivals the Harvard team’s. They’ve defeated a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and one from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, with whom they have a bitter rivalry. Moreover, the team had to prepare without the internet or many such resources that the Harvard team had access to.
Ironically, the inmates had to promote an argument with which they fiercely disagreed, “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not considered. Bard’s team maintained 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. Three students from Harvard’s team responded, and a panel of neutral judges declared the inmates victorious.
Inmates can earn various degrees through the initiative, which is taught primarily by Bard faculty. About 15% of the all-male inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch are enrolled. Graduates have continued their studies at Yale and Columbia universities, said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard prison initiative.
“We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard,” Alex Hall, a Manhattan native convicted of manslaughter told The Journal after defeating Harvard.
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.
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