Group of NY prisoners takes win over Harvard’s prestigious debate team

Harvard University’s prestigious debate team has lost to a group of New York prisoners – despite the inmates not being allowed the Internet to study.

Just months after winning a national title, the Ivy League undergraduates were defeated by a team of three men – all jailed for violent crimes.

The showdown took place at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College.

The inmates have formed a popular debate club and last month, they invited Harvard’s team – this year’s national debate champions – over for a friendly competition.

The Harvard debate team was crowned world champions in 2014. But the inmates are building a reputation of their own.

‘We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard,’ inmate Alex Hall, 31, told the Wall Street Journal.

And despite being challenged to argue a position they strongly disagreed with, the prisoners triumphed.

Against Harvard, they had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally.

Three students from Harvard’s team responded, and a panel of judges declared the inmates victorious.

The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team hadn’t considered, the judges said.

According to the WSJ, Judge Mary Nugent said the prison team proposed that if undocumented children were denied admission to public schools, then non-profits and wealthier schools would come forward to teach them.

These schools would do a better job of educating them than the ‘dropout factories’ – many of which are overcrowded, inadequately funded and failing.

The team explained that students were simply warehoused at these schools.

Nugent said although both sides did an ‘excellent job’, the Harvard team did not respond to some parts of that argument.

She added that it might seem tempting to favor the team of prisoners, the three panelists have to justify their votes to each other based on on a set of specific rules.

Anais Carell, 20, a junior at the Ivy League school, admitted: ‘They caught us off guard.’

Carlos Polanco, 31, from Queens, who is in prison for manslaughter, said he would never wish to prevent a child from pursuing an education.

Adding that he felt incredibly grateful that he was able to work towards a diploma at Bard, he told the WSJ: ‘We have been graced with opportunity. They make us believe in ourselves.’

Students on the Harvard team posted a comment on their Facebook page shortly after the loss.

‘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.’

At Bard, those who help teach the inmates aren’t particularly surprised by their success.

Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, said: ‘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.’

The BPI, which operates in six New York prisons, is the largest prison education program in the country with nearly 300 incarcerated men and women pursuing degrees.

And it wasn’t the prison team’s first taste of success either. In the two years since they started a debate club, the prisoners have beaten teams from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont.

The competition with West Point, which is now an annual affair, has grown into a rivalry.

‘The fact that we won is nice, but it isn’t the most important thing,’ Kenner said, adding that the club is meant to help students articulate what they’ve learned.

Inmates can earn various degrees through the initiative, which is taught primarily by Bard faculty.

About 15 per cent of the all-male inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch are enrolled.

Graduates of the program have continued their studies at Yale and Columbia universities, Kenner said.

While in prison, they learn without the help of the Internet, relying instead on resources provided by the college.

They must submit requests for books and articles they require – which can take weeks for the administrators to approve.

Kenner added: ‘They make the most of every opportunity they have.’

Source: The DailyMail

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