A team of inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility outperformed Harvard’s best and brightest in the difficult task to argue that “Public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally.”
Being denied access to the internet and other research options readily available to the Harvard students did not deter the inmates from presenting a well prepared debate that blindsided the Harvard Students; making a strong case that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused. The Bard prison team proposed that if “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, it would actually help non-governmental organizations and wealthier schools to be able to step in and teach them better.
The Harvard team members did not go easy on their unlikely opponents, treating them with the same respect and vigor they would any other debate team; they were impressed by the prisoners’ preparation and unexpected line of argument.
“They caught us off guard,” said Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.
Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter says, “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”
While the victory against the Harvard team is their biggest achievement to date, the inmates have won against other impressive opponents including the US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont.
The inmates’ debating team began in the spring of 2014 and is a project from the Bard College, which operates in six New York prisons to give a second chance to inmates hoping to build a better life.
“Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,” executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative Max Kenner said.
The debaters on both sides aimed to highlight the academic power of the Bard Prison Initiative which offers a rigorous college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills.
When three inmates at a New York maximum-security prison beat Harvard College in a debate last month, they said they simply wanted to compete and show the power of a prison education.
They never expected what happened next. The Wall Street Journal’s article on their victory became a hit on social media, drew news coverage around the world and brought scores of inquiries from movie producers jostling for film rights.
For men who have no access to the Internet—and in many cases were incarcerated before the rise of Twitter—the speed and breadth of attention has been stunning, said their debate coach, David Register.
“They are so amazed that the world cares about their story so much,” he said. “Even more meaningful than the knowledge of the widespread coverage is the realization of just how proud their families are of them.”
Read full afterword by Leslie Brody: wsj.com