Throughout the course of my life, I have been in conflict with authority. From getting kicked out of highschool, to being arrested on a number of occasions, I know what most sadly do not; convicts and “outlaws,” are human beings not much different than yourself. Aside from extreme cases, we have a sense of justice, integrity and morality. But we have struggled to adjust to this rapacious society. As you can presumably tell by my rhetoric, I don’t particularly consider this to be a flaw.
What personally saved me from my self destructive path, was the salvation of self education. So when I read a story like this, even if it is from last year, it brings a smile to my face. Not because I blindly stand in solidarity with people behind bars, since I judge based by character, not by label. But because it further illustrates that intelligence is not a product of schooling, nor is knowledge a product of privilege. But rather, there is salvation for the oppressed, misguided, and lost, and that salvation can be found through the art of self education.
On one side of the stage sat three Ivy League undergraduates from the elite Harvard debate team, while sitting opposite them were three men serving felony prison sentences for violent crimes.
After an hour of intellectual sparing the fast-moving debate was over, with the judges declaring victory for the inmates after weighing the veracity of each teams’ arguments.
The audience, which included almost 75 fellow participants in the Bard College Initiative, burst into applause when it was announced that the prison debate team had bested the Harvard team.
Prior to the start of the debate, team members discussed hopes of inspiring other inmates.
“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here,” said Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter. “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”
The prison debate team is the product of the Bard College Initiative, which began in 2001. The program is a rigorous academic experience offered to the men incarcerated at the Catskills, New York penitentiary through the Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
The forward thinking program allows motivated inmates the ability to develop their academic talents through hard work and dedication. Roughly 10 inmates apply for each opening in the program through interviews and written essays.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal:
There is no tuition. The initiative’s roughly $2.5 million annual budget comes from private donors and includes money it spends helping other programs follow its model in nine other states.
Last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, proposed state grants for college classes for inmates, saying that helping them become productive taxpayers would save money long-term. He dropped the plan after attacks from Republican politicians who argued that many law-abiding families struggled to afford college and shouldn’t have pay for convicted criminals to get degrees.
The Bard program’s leaders say that out of more than 300 alumni who earned degrees while in custody, less than 2% returned to prison within three years, the standard time frame for measuring recidivism.
In New York state as a whole, by contrast, about 40% of ex-offenders end up back in prison, mostly because of to parole violations, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Members of the Harvard team were clearly impressed by the prisoners’ intellectual prowess.
“They caught us off guard,” said Harvard debate team member Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.
The prison debate team has actually been scoring victories over some of the nation’s most elite debate teams.
In their first debate in spring of 2014, the prisoners beat the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, then defeated nationally ranked University of Vermont.
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