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When news broke that a debate team made up of prison inmates had defeated the Harvard College Debating Union in competition, the story drew international news coverage and swept social media. “Someone should make a movie about this,” tweeted US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, echoing widespread praise for the debaters from a maximum-security New York State prison. The Harvard College Debating Union, which was crowned world champions in 2014, expressed their admiration for the group of prisoners over Facebook: “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend.”
But in reality, the victory should not have come as much of a surprise at all. Last month’s win against Harvard marked a growing list of accomplishments for the roughly 20-member team from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Inmates on the team take part in the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners through Bard College.
In 2014, the prison’s debate team knocked off a nationally ranked squad from the University of Vermont. They also won their first competition against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, with whom they now have an annual rivalry. That the inmates are not allowed to use the Internet for research—instead having to make book and article requests to the prison administration that can take weeks at a time—makes their success all the more impressive.
More significant, however, is the statement the team’s victory makes about America’s criminal justice system. With over 1.5 million individuals behind bars as of 2014, the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. This phenomenon has generated negative stereotypes about prisoners, who often have difficulty reintegrating into society after serving their sentences.
The Bard Prison Initiative is a strong sign that our thinking about prisoners and their abilities needs drastic reorientation. Of the over 300 alumni that have earned degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, less than 2 percent have returned to prison within three years (the standard time frame for measuring recidivism), compared to a New York state average of over forty percent. The program does not charge tuition and is funded entirely by private donors. Graduates of the program have continued their studies at schools like NYU and Yale.
This success points to the need for more programs like Bard’s that work with those incarcerated to provide them with the tools to reintegrate back into society. The uptick in donations to the Bard Prison Initiative is an encouraging signal that the program will be able to start expanding beyond its current New York state bridgehead.
As Harvard’s team stated in their Facebook message, credit and praise are surely due to the prisoners from Bard. But the very fact that we find this narrative inspiring is a sign of the many stereotypes we hold about people behind bars. The Bard program shows that what most prisoners lack is opportunity, not intelligence or work ethic. We hope that national replication of the Bard program continues so that all inmates can have the same opportunities afforded to those who defeated Harvard and caused a national sensation.
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