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New York inmates defeat Harvard debate team

This was not a widely publicized event but in September, the debate team of the Bard Prison Initiative, which has 300 inmates enrolled, out-debated students from Harvard University.

In a debate between Harvard College students and those from any other college, some might guess that the Harvard students would win. And if the other side was a group of inmates at a maximum-security prison, most would probably think it was a no-brainer. Those people would be wrong.

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.

CNN reported that if we knew the prison debate club's record, we might have voted for the inmates. It seems that 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. In a group Facebook posting, the students said: "Three members of the [Harvard team] had the privilege of competing against members of the Bard Prison Initiative's debate program.” 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.

According to multiple sources, these prisoners are special – 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.

Does that mean Harvard students don’t have the same opportunity or see it as life-affirming? I think more is involved including whether the Harvard students had the work ethic necessary to beat an extraordinarily highly motivated group of inmates.

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.

Harvard seems to dismiss the debate team loss as being beaten by a better debate team. I wonder, though, is it more a reflection of work ethic? Is it possible that Harvard took the team for granted, especially since they did not have access to the Internet and needed approval of necessary information?

I think the loss by the Harvard team should be an embarrassment to the University and the faculty adviser. I’ll accept that the Brad Initiative is doing great work with those 300 prisoners. Still, debating is a skill that has to be practiced. I wonder whether they were well enough prepared to excel in that area, one in which you would expect Harvard students to be at the top in any competition.

It’s great that a select few prisoners can achieve such results and the recidivism rate is so low. It would be nice if such a program could be extended to more prisoners in more prisons. After all, isn’t the purpose of incarceration, at least in part, to help prisoner become functioning members of society?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 15, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: