Three on three, they sat across from each other. Locked in a battle of wits, a debate. After an hour of debate, the judges declared a winner and, to the surprise of at least one group of people, the underdogs won. That group of people who were surprised? Three members of the Harvard debate team. The victors? Three inmates from Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills all serving time for violent crimes.
75 of the prisoners' fellow students were in the audience. They're all enrolled in a program at the Bard Prison Initiative
, which provides a challenging college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, and through the program, to inmates at other institutions around the country.
In 2005, BPI awarded the first Bard College degrees to incarcerated candidates. It now operates a network of 6 satellite campuses across New York, working with students up through their release and after.
According to Bard's website, "Among formerly incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison."
Back to the debate, it was set up to show off BPI's prison initiative. According to the Wall Street Journal, the prison team had its first debate in 2014, beating West Point. It went on to win against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont, then in April had a rematch against the Military Academy at West Point and lost.
One of the reasons the Harvard team may have fallen to the prison team is underestimating them.
Inmates can't use the Internet for research and the prison administration must approve requests for research materials, which can take some time.
One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told Daily Kos, "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.'”