Three Harvard debate team members faced off against three men incarcerated for violent crimes. This was two weeks ago.
After an hour of fast-moving debate on Friday, the judges rendered their verdict.
The inmates won.
The audience burst into applause. That included about 75 of the prisoners’ fellow students at the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a rigorous college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills.
The prison debate squad v. Harvard debate team was set up to show off Bard College’s prison initiative. Pretty successful exhibition.
The prison team had its first debate in spring 2014, beating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Then, it won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont, and in April lost a rematch against West Point.
Preparing has its challenges. Inmates can’t use the Internet for research. The prison administration must approve requests for books and articles, which can take weeks.
The team they beat said they were caught off guard by how prepared the inmates were. These are men serving time for manslaughter. Our perceptions of their capabilities can be pretty condescending. Judge Mary Nugent led the debate panel.
Ms. Nugent said it might seem tempting to favor the prisoners’ team, but the three judges have to justify their votes to each other based on specific rules and standards.
“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.”
According to Bard their program currently has 300 prison inmates of both genders fully enrolled. They also say the program is cost effective.
The criminal justice system is staggeringly expensive. As a country we spend $212 billion dollars annually to apprehend, try, and incarcerate prisoners. In recent years, the United States has maintained a prison population of more than 2.3 million people, with the average annual cost of over $29,000 per person (in many states, including New York, the cost is much higher). And while America has the longest and most punitive sentencing structures in the modern world, 750,000 inmates are released each year. Nationwide, nearly 68 out of every one hundred prisoners are rearrested within three years of release, and more than half return to prison. Research indicates that these high and expensive rates of recidivism fall to less than 22% if prisons offer significant educational opportunity to incarcerated men and women. Among formerly incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison. The estimated cost per person, per year of the BPI program is a small fraction of the price of continuing incarceration. It saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.