Over the last two years, a debate team made up of New York prison inmates has outsmart some of best debating teams in New England. Now they have proven they are world class, having defeated the very best in a showdown of words and reasoning at the maximum security Eastern New York Correctional Facility.
Prisoners at the facility can take educational courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College.
One of the most popular education related clubs at the facility is the Debate Club, whose inmate members have built quite a reputation in the debating world. Since the club was formed two years ago, they have defeated teams from the University of Vermont and U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Although proud of their success to date, the club's members decided to see how they would fare against the very best by inviting Harvard University's undergraduate debating team in for a friendly but serious debate. The Harvard team had just last month won the national debating championship and was crowned world champions last year.
Against the Ivy Leaguers the inmates had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally. By using arguments that the Harvard students appeared to not have heard before and had no real answers to, the panel of neutral judges declared the inmates victorious.
The Harvard team was not immediately available for comment, but just after the loss they posted a comment on their team Facebook page.
"There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend," they wrote. "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 win did not surprise the Bard faculty who help teach the inmates.
The executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, Max Kenner says, "Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard's main campus. Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty."
Kenner says, "The fact that we won is nice, but it isn't the most important thing," adding the debating club is meant to help students articulate what they've learned.
"They make the most of every opportunity they have," he says.