Preparation is the key to most things in life, and nowhere is that more true than in competitive academic debates. A case in point is a recent debate in which a team of New York state prisoners convicted for violent crimes surprisingly beat a team of well-regarded Harvard undergraduates.

New York Prisoners Beat Harvard Debate Team

The winning debaters were students at the Bard Prison Initiative, a program offering a challenging college experience to inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. The program, run by Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York has been working for almost 15 years to give a second chance to felons willing to work hard and try and create a better life.

More on the Bard Prison Initiative versus Harvard debate

The rather controversial topic of last week’s debate was: Resolved: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” The BPI team was debating in favor of the resolution, and the Harvard team was the “negative” side.

Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens convicted of manslaughter, commented following the debate that he would never want to bar a child from school and was extremely grateful he was able pursue a Bard diploma. “We have been graced with opportunity,” he said. “They make us believe in ourselves.”

Judge Mary Nugent, the leader of a panel of experienced judges for the debate, noted that the BPI team made a strong case that a large number of the schools attended by undocumented children were performing so poorly that students were being warehoused instead of educated. They argued that if these “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding denied these children admission, then in the vast majority of cases you would see nonprofits and wealthier schools step in and provide a higher quality education for these undocumented kids.

Nugent went on to point out that the Harvard College debating team did not respond to a good bit of that argument, but noted that both sides put on an excellent debate.

The Harvard team admitted they were impressed by the preparation of the BPI team and the surprising and effective argument. “They caught us off guard,” explained Anais Carell, a junior from the Windy City.

Of note, the prison debating team had its first debate in early 2014, overcoming a team from the U.S. Military Academy. In its second debate, the BPI debaters won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont, but earlier this spring, they lost a close rematch against West Point.

The BPI debate team is operating at a significant disadvantage in terms of research. That’s because Inmates can’t use the Internet for research. Prison officials  must approve all requests for books and articles, which often takes weeks.

Debate was not rigged

Nugent highlighted that while it might seem they would be biased to vote for the prisoners’ team, all three judges must justify their votes to each other based on exacting rules and standards.

“We’re all human,” she noted. “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.”

More on Bard Prison Initiative

The Bard Prison Initiative was launched in 2001, and is designed to provide liberal-arts educations to talented, motivated inmates. BPI administrators report that close to 10 inmates apply for every spot in the program, and the application process includes both written essays and a series of interviews.

The BPI program does not charge any tuition. It has a budget of close to $2.5 million a year, all from private donors, and that figure includes a significant sum of money that BPI is investing to help prisons and colleges develop similar programs in nine other states.

According to records kept by the administrators of BPI, to date over 300 alumni of the program have earned degrees while in custody, and less than 2% returned to prison within three years (the generally accepted time frame for measuring prison recidivism).

Keep in mind that in New York state as a whole, more than 40% of those released from custody eventually wind up back in prison. The number one reason ex-offenders end up back in jail is parole violations, based on data from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.