Bard College-Educated Prisoners Defeat Harvard Debate Team

Like The Longest Yard, but with more public speaking.

Photo by Olga Khvan

Photo by Olga Khvan

A group of inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills defeated the Harvard College Debating Union at the maximum-security prison last month.

The debate, which pitted three men imprisoned for violent crimes against three Harvard College undergrads, was an exhibition of sorts for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which gives inmates an opportunity to obtain a diploma from Bard College, located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

“The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study,” the program says on its website. “The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.”

Because the BPI students aren’t allowed Internet access, they prepare by reading books and articles approved by prison administrators. Despite the old-school flair, the team has found success, defeating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and nationally ranked University of Vermont, as well.

In their tilt against the Harvard squad, the BPI team was forced to argue in favor of the resolve: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” In the end, a panel of three judges felt the inmates simply made a stronger case.

“They caught us off guard,” Anais Carell, a 20-year-old Harvard junior told The Wall Street Journal.