Debatable Shock: Harvard Debate Team Loses To New York Prison Inmates

In an unlikely outcome, the national champions Harvard’s debate team lost to a group of inmates from a New York prison.

The debate was held at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison located near Bard College. The facility invited the Harvard’s debate team for a friendly banter.

The topic was ‘Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students’.

After an hour of fast-moving debate, the judges declared the team of inmates – Bard Prison Initiative – the winner.

But the win shouldn’t have been so unexpected.

The inmates have, previously, beaten teams from the US Military Academy and the University of Vermont.

They started their debate club two years ago and since then, they have built quite a reputation of their own.

The inmates are taught by faculty from nearby Bard College where they can enroll in various courses. About 15 percent of the all-male inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch are enrolled.

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

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

“Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigour and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus. These students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty.”


 Carl Snyder, a prison inmate and member of the Bard Prison Initiative Debate team, speaks during a debate against Harvard College Debating Union WSJ

Carl Snyder, a prison inmate and member of the Bard Prison Initiative Debate team, speaks during a debate against Harvard College Debating Union

Ironically, the inmates had to promote an argument with which they fiercely disagreed.

An inmate, Carlos Polanco, 31, said that he would never want to bar a child from school and he felt forever grateful he could pursue a Bard diploma.

“We have been graced with opportunity. They make us believe in ourselves,” he said.

Though inmates won, the team members talked of nerves before the debate and their hope that competing against Harvard — even if they lost — would inspire other inmates to pursue educations. Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter, said:

“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here. We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”

Judge Mary Nugent, leading a veteran panel, said the Bard team made a strong case. Also, the Harvard College Debating Union didn’t respond to parts of that argument, though both sides did an excellent job.

The Harvard team members later posted a comment on a team’s Facebook page. They said, “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend. And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”


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