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New York Prison Inmates Trounce Harvard Debate Team

It sounds like a storyline out of Hollywood. A group of convicted inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, all of them participants in Bard College’s Prison Initiative, challenge Harvard University’s national championship-winning debate team. The inmates, who research without the Internet (because it’s not allowed), and wait weeks for the books they need to be cleared by security, win.

But it’s not a movie. It’s what happened in mid-September on a prison stage in front of more than 150 spectators and a panel of national college debate judges.

Max Kenner is executive director of Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which has granted more than 300 undergraduate degrees over the last 13 years. He joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss his students and the issues surrounding the country’s inmate education initiatives.

Interview Highlights

Where does debating fit into the inmates’ education?

“With respect to where debate fits into the curriculum of an undergraduate program, a student is forced to master arguments that don’t come naturally to her or to him. When one has to go through that exercise of articulating an argument that you may not respect or may not have thought through, you’re forced to honor the argument, honor another person’s perspective, and I think become more empathetic. I think that’s something that all students could benefit from.”

On the surprise when the Bard students won

“If there’s any problem we have in education, particularly higher education, it follows from the catastrophically low expectations we have of people. So many of our undergraduates at the best colleges and universities in U.S. aren’t surprised to be there – their parents went there, their grandparents went there, and they’re going through the motions. Throughout American history there have always been pockets of people, think of the immigrant experience, think of the extraordinary accomplishments of the freed people in the generation after the emancipation from slavery, all these people in American history value education more and achieve more. I believe, in the U.S. today, the incarcerated population represents one of these groups.”

Why should prisoners have this opportunity?

“I think trivializing or being flippant about how difficult life is for incarcerated people in the U.S. and how extreme the punishment is, is not responsible. It’s something people do in the media and in all walks of American life all the time. And the idea that if we give people the opportunity to improve themselves, to be better parents, to be less likely to commit crimes in the future, and to be contributing members of society, we’ll all do better. I’ll be completely honest, I’m not in the business of criminal punishment, and I’m not in the business of making the kind of moral generalizations you’re asking of me. I am in the business of education, and when I look at the U.S., I see a society with the crisis of college access, and I cannot face the question you’re asking, when you say we finally found something that works, is inexpensive, and gets results that otherwise seem impossible. When we find something that works, the policy is to shut it down rather than replicate it? I think it’s precisely the wrong question to ask.”

What about people asking why convicted criminals are getting these benefits?

“I would say that violence in American society is something we have to take absolutely seriously. But there’s a point at which responding with something other than violence might be more effective. We can go through all the typical boring arguments about crime and punishment, personal responsibility, and the terrible racial problems bequeathed to us, or we can look at the problems and say we’re going to try to actually solve the problems and do it in a way that treats one another respectfully and with dignity and with hope for a better future. Punishment alone will not get us there.”

What does it mean to the Bard Prison Initiative that your students won?

“Obviously it was exciting. There was an audience of about 100 other incarcerated Bard students. We’ve done this a number of times and we’ve debated West Point Academy and the University of Vermont, and done very well. And we think the college we have at Eastern Correction Facility, the college we have across prisons in the state of New York, are among the best learning colleges of any in the U.S., because of the dedication and real persistent hard work our students put in and the curiosity they have. We’ve won a handful of debates before, and we did so well we thought it was really important that we try to take on the best team in the country, so we reached out to them, not as an act of charity, but to compete with other undergraduates that have the same interest and curiosity that you do.”


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Students in Bard College's Prison Initiative are pictured at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne, New York. (China Jorrin)
Students in Bard College's Prison Initiative are pictured at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne, New York. (China Jorrin)
Students in Bard College's Prison Initiative are pictured at Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, a women's prison that has since closed. (Peter Mauney)
Students in Bard College's Prison Initiative are pictured at Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, a women's prison that has since closed. (Peter Mauney)

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