Three Harvard undergraduates, who were representing Cambridge in the debate, competed against three incarcerated former offenders. This was the second win for the men, who beat a team of Oxford men last year. Making the win even more shocking is the fact that the men debated a position they did not support in real life.
In the debate, the inmates had to promote the argument that “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” Carlos Polanco, who is serving time for manslaughter, stated after the debate that he would never want a child to not be able to enroll because he or she was undocumented.
The Harvard team admitted that they were impressed and caught of guard. The inmates won despite the fact that they were unable to use the Internet for research. Instead, they were forced to use books and articles approved by prison administration, a process that could take weeks sometimes.
The Bard Prison Initiative the men participate in was started in 2001 with the goal of allowing talented and motivated inmates the opportunity to get a liberal-arts education. Inmates do not pay tuition. Instead, the program is funded by $2.5 million in annual donations from private donors.
More than 300 alumni have earned degrees while in custody, and evidence of the positive impact is the fact that less than 2 percent of them return to prison within three years. It should be noted that the recidivism rate for New York State as a whole is around 40 percent. Nationwide, more than 75 percent of former offenders return to prison within five years. The debate team’s win is helping draw attention to the programs success and the fact that it is possible for prison to be more than just a factory of punishment, release and re-offense.