Harvard Students Debated Prison Inmates and Guess Who Won

Sure their students won a debate against Harvard, but that's only one reason the Bard Prison Initiative is changing the way we think about criminals.


The Harvard debate team, 2014 world champions, just lost against a seemingly unlikely competitor — prisoners at the Eastern Correctional Facility. The winning team is part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers incarcerated men and women the chance to receive a college education while serving their time. The workload, its mission statement asserts, is “rigorous ... an unusual mix of attention to development skills and ambitious college study.” According to The Guardian, which covered the story:

"The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed. One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told The Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument."

This is remarkable for three reasons: Prisoners beat an Ivy League debate team; Bard is humanizing people normally left out of society; and a prestigious educational institution is using the word “ambitious” in conjunction with incarcerated men.

At first glance, it’s easy to miss the bigger picture. It seems like the human interest stories they tack on at the last five minutes of the evening news, to uplift you after 25 minutes of depressing world events. The story isn’t that the team won; it’s that a segment of the population that we normally dismiss as bad, wrong, disturbed, and hopeless is being seen for what they are: people.

Our skyrocketing incarceration rates are less related to crime than to racial politics, tough-on-crime rhetoric, and for-profit prisons, says historian Robert Perkinson.

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