Three members of the Harvard University debate team competed against three inmates who were convicted of violent crimes. The inmates won the debate, proof that prison isn’t always the end of the line for some people.
The inmates, who are held at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills, are part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers higher learning to inmates. The three men are serving prison terms for manslaughter.
Inmates are prohibited from using the internet for research in preparation for such debates, and the Harvard team was stunned by how well-prepared the inmate team was. Judge Mary Nugent took special note of the inmate team’s performance. She 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,” Nugent 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.”
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.
Nugent also said that society at large tends to have a pretty condescending attitude towards prisoners. It’s easy to think that just because someone is incarcerated that they have no value. The inmate debate team from Eastern New York proved otherwise.
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