A group of prisoners just beat Harvard undergrads in a formal debate -- here's how they did it

Forget Friday Night Football, this could be the biggest upset of the year.

In a recent three-on-three debate between Harvard College Debating Union and Eastern New York Correctional Facility, the winner was clear: To the convicts went the spoils.

The improbable victory actually signalled a much larger one, which other prisons would do well to adopt.

As part of their stay in the maximum-security prison, each of the three inmates participates in the facility’s Bard Prison Initiative, a collaboration with Bard College that offers university-level courses to inmates so that they face a smoother transition into the working world when they’re released.

While the national average for recidivism hovers around 67% over a three-year period, Bard leaders claim the rate for its alumni is just 2%. With education, it seems, comes emancipation from the cycle of crime.

The September 18 debate was hardly a shoo-in for the inmates, who didn’t have internet access to conduct research. The three-inmate team had to argue in favour of the argument that: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.”

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the team took the position that by accepting undocumented students, public schools would effectively become “dropout factories.” If instead they denied those students, private donors and nonprofits could step in to provide them with an even better education.

That case was argued strongly enough to convince Judge Mary Nugent the inmates deserved the win, which came as a shock even to their opponents.

BPI began in 1999 as a student organisation. By 2005, it had awarded its first Bard College degrees to incarcerated students. Today, the program enrolls nearly 300 men and women and offers 60 courses of study each semester. To date, over 700 students have graduated.

“Graduates of the BPI program have consistently succeeded after release from prison,” the program states on its website. “Some have chosen to work in human service organisations, serving people with AIDS, or becoming professional counselors for residents in city-based alternatives to incarceration.”

With such a low recidivism rate, the model looks to be a successful one — perhaps because it is so different from how the U.S. typically seeks justice: By punishing wrongdoers, instead of rehabilitating them.

The BPI model suggests a future is still possible for those convicted of violent crimes. If put in the right circumstances, they can flourish just as well as the nation’s brightest.

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