Harvard's prestigious debate team defeated by NY prison inmates

Eastern New York correctional Napanoch © www.mapio.cz
Last year’s world champions, the prestigious Harvard debate team, got a surprise stinger. They fell to a group of New York maximum-security prison inmates educated at a college located near the prison in Napanoch.

The Harvard team holds a number of titles, as well as being reigning US champions. But they were no match for the inmates, who also took down the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. In fact, the feud with West Point is now for real. But the team at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility has only been competing for slightly more than a year.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the inmates were educated at nearby Bard College as part of a special initiative that is gathering steam.

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," executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, Max Kenner, told the AP. "Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty."

The initiative operates in six NY prisons.

The debate, which took place last month, revolved around the issue of whether public schools should be able to turn away the children of those who entered the country illegally. The inmates defended the position against Harvard, and a panel of neutral judges had no choice but to give them the victory.

The three men who took the victory are all serving time for manslaughter.

The Harvard undergraduates were very moved by this contest of wit, and congratulated the prison team on their victory in a Facebook post.

"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 said. "And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event."

© Jessica Rinaldi

According to prison rules, inmates are forbidden from using the internet for research, and the Harvard team was amazed at how well-prepared the inmates were for the event. Judge Mary Nugent took special note of that. She also said that the victory was won fair and square.

“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,” she told the WSJ.

The judge also said that society tends to look down on prisoners, and that the victory disproved that condescending attitude.

According to the prisoners, however, education itself - rather than winning debates - is the real goal. "The fact that we won is nice, but it isn't the most important thing," Kenner said. The debate club is a place to hone the skills learned during their studies, he added.

The initiative is a comprehensive one, affording the inmates a pathway to several degrees. Some 15 percent of the all-male inmates at the facility are enrolled, and often with tremendous success: some go on to study at institutions such as Yale and Columbia.

The initiative is run on roughly $2.5 million annually on donations from private donors. Part of that money is spent on setting up the education initiative in nine other states. Last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed increased investment into college for prisoners, to be made from state grants. He believes producing more capable taxpayers is the way forward. But the Republicans attacked the plan on the grounds that many law-abiding families who can’t afford college shouldn’t have to pay for criminals to have the ability.

Leaders with the Bard program say that, currently, of the more than 300 alumni who earned their degrees behind bars, less than 2 percent returned to a life of crime within the next three years (the average time for recidivism).

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.