Prison debate team locks up victory over Harvard

Debaters from Harvard University were defeated Friday by a team composed of prison inmates, who successfully argued that public schools should deny enrollment to illegal immigrants.

Three inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility competed in the debate against three Harvard undergraduates, with the former taking the “pro” position on the topic “Resolved: Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“They caught us off guard,” Harvard debater Anais Carell told The Journal.

The purpose of the debate was to highlight the success of the Bard Prison Initiative, through which inmates are able to engage in a “rigorous” course of study, tuition-free, upon the conclusion of which they can earn a degree from Bard College.

Mary Nugent, one of the judges, credited the Bard team for making a strong case that the public schools with the highest proportion of undocumented students have become “dropout factories,” and that nonprofits and wealthier school districts would be better able to provide the classroom space and funding necessary to educate such children if they were not automatically enrolled in local public schools.

According to Nugent, the Harvard team failed to respond to aspects of that argument, even though it had a significant advantage in preparation, because the inmates are barred from using the Internet for research, and must wait—sometimes for weeks—to receive approval for the books and articles they must rely on to prepare.

“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here,” predicted Alex Hall, a Bard debater serving prison time for manslaughter. “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”

That work ethic has guided the team to several upset victories, starting with a win in its inaugural debate last year against a team from West Point. The inmate debate team also defeated a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont.

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