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How Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate Competition

When news that a prisoners' debate team in a college education program won a national debate championship against Harvard, it was surprising to apparently everyone—except for the prisoners themselves.

Last year, the team studying under the Bard Prison Initiative beat the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Then, it won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and in April lost a rematch against West Point.

The two teams faced off last month in a debate at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison. Harvard had already won three of four American Parliamentary Debate Association national championships. They debated whether public schools should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students. The prisoners were assigned to argue that, indeed, enrollment should be denied, a position they claim they personally disagree with.

But the approximately 20-member team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, who are working toward college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, got down to work, researching the issues, crafting a case and anticipating arguments and counterarguments. Harvard (and all the other debate teams) did the same, but logistics were different for the Bard prison team.

Unlike other debates teams, these guys did not have access to the Internet or law libraries. Instead, they had to request research materials, which could sometimes take weeks for approval.

Judging from news reports and some Facebook comments, the fact that incarcerated men bested a team of young Harvard debaters is shocking, hilarious or deserving of being mocked. (The Guardian quipped, "They argued with conviction.") Others recognized the talent lost or hidden in the schools to prison pipelines.

But the people in the debate—the Bard and Harvard teams—knew firsthand what had happened.

After the debate, the teams from Bard and Harvard shook hands and compared notes.

The Wall Street Journal reported some of the Bard team members' reactions to the reaction of their win:

"Dyjuan Tatro, a 29-year-old who hopes to go to graduate school for molecular biology after finishing his sentence for assault, said he was thrilled to have won against such an articulate team. "You see these young kids and they blow you away," he said.

"Carlos Polanco, 31, convicted of manslaughter, said 'it was a relief' the debate was over so he could catch up on his homework."

Another felt proud that his nephew was bragging about him at school.

Harvard team notoriously very graciously congratulated the winners:

"There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend," the Harvard College Debating Union wrote on Facebook after the defeat, "and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event."

The president of the team also said he hopes the high-profile win that everyone is talking about will spark discussion on the value of investing in rehabilitation in prison and also challenge the stereotypes of prisoners.

Donations have also come pouring into the program.


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