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.

I recently wrote about how neuroscientists are proving that there is no consistent self, and the hope we can find in that. These men and women are in prison because (assuming they are all guilty) they broke the law. It’s true that their actions were most likely heinous, unthinkable crimes. Our culture responds by saying, "You did something bad so you are bad; go to prison so we never have to think about you again." But if we are more than our actions, and if we all have the capacity to evolve, to grow, to aspire, and inspire, why should that logic not be extended to prisoners?

Bard is educating these men and women because it believes that they have the ability to learn and change. Often people who commit crimes are a product of their environment, especially in the inner city where poverty, gangs, and drugs are so prevalent. If we can help break that cycle by showing that everyone has the capacity to rise above their circumstances, isn’t it possible that we could lower our obscene incarceration rate, lower the crime rate, and begin to humanize the people whose identities were previously defined by their crimes?

Some of the graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative have gone on to obtain advanced degrees from Ivy League universities. So how would you define them — as criminals, as Ivy League graduates, a good person, bad person, or more accurately are they a composite of all of these? I’m not the same person I was a few weeks ago, a year ago, or 10 years ago, and I wouldn’t want to carry the burden of a past self with me every single day. I've never killed anyone, but I've done and said things I wish I hadn't, and I've forgiven myself. Maybe we should extend the kindness we show ourselves to those who need it most. If that seems unrealistic, I suppose it's up for debate.

--

Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY, which is the most unoriginal sentence she has ever written. You can look at her silly drawings on Tumblr, Rad Drawings, or read her silly tweets @LilBoodleChild. Enough about her, she says: how are you?

HARVARD PHOTO CREDIT: iStock

PRISONER PHOTO CREDIT: iStock

COLLAGE: Lori Chandler

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Photo: Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less