We Work Really Hard: Maximum Security Inmates 1, Harvard 0

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Photo by Jared Ames/Bard College. Front photo by Peter Foley/Wall Street Journal.

In a wonderfully emblematic story encompassing almost all of this country's issues that matter - race, class, privilege, justice, education, economics, incarceration and the often elusive possibility of grace against the odds - a budding debate team of maximum security inmates went up against a champion debate team of Harvard students, and won. The felonious debaters  - Carl Snyder, Dyjuan Tatro and Carlos Polanco - have all been convicted of manslaughter and are held at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where the debate took place.

The three men are part of the Bard Prison Initiative, the largest and likely most inspired prison education program in the U.S., and increasingly a model for other states. Run by nearby Bard College, it works to "redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice" by offering 60 college classes to almost 300 incarcerated men and women in six New York State prisons. Both the admissions process - they take one out of ten applicants - and the academic workload are rigorous; many of those who finish later go on to graduate degrees. Most impressively, the number getting jobs after release is high, and the recidivism rate, the program rightly boasts, is "stunningly low" - fewer than 2% return to prison, compared to a statewide average of 40%. Classes are taught by Bard faculty and tuition is free, with the roughly $2.5 million budget largely donated. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed state grants for the classes, but Republicans - surprise - opposed them.

The inmate team faced untold challenges. Inside, they have no access to the Internet, so prepping meant requesting books and articles that could take weeks winding through the prison bureaucracy. Coming from where many of them are coming from, the inmates are often new to at least formal strategic thinking and speaking; then again, says one, “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.” They also had to argue a position they vehemently oppose: "Public schools in the U.S. should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” Unsurprisingly, they got inventive, arguing that most schools attended by undocumented kids are so lousy the kids would be better off if those "dropout factories" closed and got replaced by richer, better schools. The Harvard team, less accustomed to necessity as the mother of invention, came up short; later, they admitted the argument "caught us off guard." It was the inmates' second big win; last year, they also beat West Point.

The win, noted Alex Hall, a fellow Bard inmate in the audience, should "make a lot of people question what goes on in here." It could also demonstrate "how much better we can do in education in the U.S. for all people," says BPI founder Max Kenner, who stresses the program works "because we operate on a genuinely human level." Noting that the 2.3 million people now imprisoned in the U.S. "cannot be wished away," initiative leaders argue that "college is the most effective - and inexpensive - way of helping people escape cycles of crime and incarceration." Brian Fischer, former New York  Commissioner of Corrections: “Education changes people. And (that’s) what prisons should do - change somebody from one way of thinking to (another)...It's our obligation to make (them) better than they were." The Bard debaters have taken that goal, and thankfully run with it. "We have been graced with opportunity,” says Carlos Polanco of Queens. “They make us believe in ourselves.”

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Home to the Harvard team

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Home to the Bard team

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