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? 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 had their fair share, defeated a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. The prison club had invited the Harvard College Debating Union to participate.
Inmates had to defend a point of view with which they strongly disagreed, a common practice in debate competition: “Resolved: Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” The Harvard club seemed to take the loss gracefully.
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the super 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 a number of challenges preparing for a 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 a 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.