A Prison Debate Team’s Victory Shows With Better Opportunities They Could Have Gone to Harvard (Video)
There is an undeniable problem in the United States criminal-justice system that even President Obama could no longer ignore. Recently, he became the first sitting President to visit federal inmates, and the historic event was captured by Vice in a special report called “Fixing the System.” The statistics are staggering – with approximately 4% of the world’s population, the United States holds 25% of the world’s imprisoned, meaning that 1 out of 4 prisoners around the world are located in American detention centers. As politicians, pundits, and citizens debate ways to address that ugly truth, there are small but meaningful steps being taken by some prisons to do what is arguably their most important job – rehabilitate. And, arguably, a major aspect of inmate rehabilitation involves education, so that prisoners can receive degrees while serving sentences, regardless of what that sentence may be.
The Eastern Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York is one such prison. Many of its inmates are working towards a Liberal Arts degree in a program featuring professors from nearby Bard College. According to a report at the Guardian, ECF inmates had formed a debate team of their own, which has the full support of the Bard Prison Initiative, whose Executive Director Max Kenner argues that “Debate helps students master arguments that they don’t necessarily agree with…It also pushes people to learn to be not just better litigators but to become more empathetic people.” So, who did ECF take on as an opponent? Oh, just Harvard. According to the Wall Street Journal, the two opposing teams had to debate whether or not “public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students,” a topic that in many ways speaks to the inmates’ own experiences; swap out “prisons” for “public schools,” “education” for “enrollment,” and “incarcerated citizens” for “undocumented students,” and the arguments could run nearly parallel.
The ECF team, according to debate judge Mary Nugent, “made a strong case that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused. The team proposed that if ‘dropout factories’ with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.” This wasn’t their first time taking down a highly respected opponent, either. Last year, they beat the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, something even other Ivy League universities haven’t done.
While the problem of the United States Criminal Justice system is omnipresent and systemic, the statistics coming out of the Bard program are promising. The Guardian shared some hopeful stats, including the fact that of the inmates who take part in the program, “fewer than 2% have returned to prison within three years.” Ambrosia for Heads salutes the two formidable opponents and congratulates the men at Eastern Correctional Facility for defying stereotypes in such a powerful way.
Vice’s powerful documentary on criminal justice reform is available in its entirety here. Check it out to see President Obama’s poignant sit-down with inmates and to learn more about the ongoing obstacles in the fight for a fairer system.