Three men imprisoned for violent crimes recently faced off against three members of the Harvard College debate team in an exhibition match. To some, the probable outcome may have seemed inevitable. But, in a shocking upset the inmates won.
The unlikely victory is a testament to the power of education and second chances in the lives of the incarcerated. The debate was set up to exhibit the Bard Prison Initiative, a rigorous college matriculation program offered to inmates housed at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills.
“We have been graced with opportunity,” said debater Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens in prison for manslaughter, according to the Wall Street Journal. “They make us believe in ourselves.”
Polanco and his teammates—all of whom were convicted of manslaughter—could not use the Internet to research their topic. And both their opponents and the judges were surprised by their level of preparation and the depth of their arguments.
“They caught us off guard,” said Harvard debater Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.
Judge Mary Nugent, who led the panel of judges, said while it may have been tempting to favor the “underdogs,” the panelists all had to justify their decisions to each other based on certain standards. And, they overwhelmingly agreed that the inmates provided compelling arguments that the Harvard team did not sufficiently counter.
“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.”
The Bard Prisoner Initiative (BPI) was launched in 1999 by Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. The largest program of its kind in the United States, BPI enrolls nearly 300 incarcerated men and women across a range of academic disciplines, and offers over 60 courses each semester, according to its website.
Program leaders say the program has been a positive force in boosting inmate outcomes after their release. “The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low,” the website states. “By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.”
Out of more than 300 alumni who earned degrees while in custody, less than 2 percent returned to prison within three years, the standard time frame for measuring recidivism, BPI officials said.
The program is funded by private donations. Its annual $2.5 million budget also supports similar college-in-prison programs throughout the country, including those at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Goucher College in Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana. Plans are in place to establish programs in 10 other states in the next five years.