Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.
The showdown took place at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, 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. Last month, they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition.
The Harvard debate team also was crowned world champions in 2014. But the inmates are building a reputation of their own. In the two years since they started a debate club, the prisoners have beaten teams from the US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. The competition with West Point, which is now an annual affair, has grown into a rivalry.
At Bard, those who help teach the inmates aren’t particularly surprised by their success.
“Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,” said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which operates in six New York prisons. “Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty.”
Students on the Harvard team weren’t immediately available for comment, but shortly after the loss, they posted a comment on a team Facebook page.
“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 wrote. “And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”
Against Harvard, the inmates were tasked with defending a position they opposed: They had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the US illegally. The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team hadn’t considered. Three students from Harvard’s team responded, and a panel of neutral judges declared the inmates victorious.
“The fact that we won is nice, but it isn’t the most important thing,” said Kenner, adding that the club is meant to help students articulate what they’ve learned.
Inmates can earn various degrees through the initiative, which is taught primarily by Bard faculty. About 15 percent of the all-male inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch are enrolled. Graduates of the program have continued their studies at Yale and Columbia universities, Kenner said.
While in prison, they learn without the help of the Internet, relying instead on resources provided by the college.
“They make the most of every opportunity they have,” Kenner said.