When you hear the words “Harvard debate team,” your mind likely goes towards a place that involves “the best” or “top of the heap.” Not saying that Harvard is better or worse than anywhere else, but it does have that reputation. That’s why it’s interesting to note that the Harvard debate team went up against a team of prisoners two weeks ago, coming from Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills, and they lost:
After an hour of fast-moving debate on Friday, the judges rendered their verdict.
The inmates won.
The audience burst into applause. That included about 75 of the prisoners’ fellow students at the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a rigorous college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills.
It wasn’t a tale of overnight success according to The Wall Street Journal via The Daily Kos. The prisoners started off debating in 2014 against West Point and The University of Vermont, walking away with two victories and a loss in a rematch with West Point. That’s impressive, but making it even better is the fact that the prisoners have no access to the internet and have to request documents through prison officials. They are prisoners, of course, so this is expected and all, but don’t think that played into the judge’s decision to award them a victory over Harvard:
Ms. Nugent said it might seem tempting to favor the prisoners’ team, but the three judges have to justify their votes to each other based on specific rules and standards.
“We’re all human,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever judge devoid of context or where we are, but the idea they would win out of sympathy is playing into pretty misguided ideas about inmates. Their academic ability is impressive.”
The prisoners are part of Bard College’s prison initiative and currently has 300 prisoner, men and women, enrolled in the program according to Daily Kos:
The criminal justice system is staggeringly expensive. As a country we spend $212 billion dollars annually to apprehend, try, and incarcerate prisoners. In recent years, the United States has maintained a prison population of more than 2.3 million people, with the average annual cost of over $29,000 per person (in many states, including New York, the cost is much higher). And while America has the longest and most punitive sentencing structures in the modern world, 750,000 inmates are released each year. Nationwide, nearly 68 out of every one hundred prisoners are rearrested within three years of release, and more than half return to prison. Research indicates that these high and expensive rates of recidivism fall to less than 22% if prisons offer significant educational opportunity to incarcerated men and women. Among formerly incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison. The estimated cost per person, per year of the BPI program is a small fraction of the price of continuing incarceration. It saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.