Prisoners from Bard Prison Initiative Challenge Harvard Debate Team

Harvard’s prestigious debate team challenges prisoners from the Bard Prison Initiative to a friendly competition — to surprising results

It has been said that you can’t put a price on a good education — and the Bard Prison Initiative proves just that. The college offers a rigorous academic program, consisting of more than 60 academic programs and 300 full-time students across six prisons in New York State, at no cost to the inmates.

The program’s successful, too: Prisoners from Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch (Ulster County) who take part in the debate team have won against prestigious and well-known debate institutions, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. The team’s most recent victory came against Harvard College in a friendly competition held at the correctional facility on September 18.

Three prisoners from BPI, a division of the Bard Debate Union, engaged three undergraduate students from the Ivy League university in an argument over whether elementary schools should enroll undocumented children. The prisoners were asked to defend the idea that elementary schools should not admit undocumented immigrants — ironically, a notion they vehemently disagreed with.

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The judges cited the Harvard team’s inability to address points raised by the Bard team, such as the notion that many schools who admit undocumented children end up failing to provide the students with a proper education. The prisoners, who called upon nonprofit and wealthier institutions to step in and educate immigrant students, came out victorious.

After their defeat, the Harvard team posted this sentiment to its Facebook page: “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”

The prisoners’ victory is especially impressive due to their limited research resources. They do not have access to the Internet and have to specially request books, articles, and other research tools to prepare for the debates.

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Members of the Bard Prison Initiative, despite strict Internet limitations, have succeeded in debates against the U.S. Military Academy and the University of Vermont

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Photographs by Peter Mauney (left) and China Jorin (right)

Alex Hall, a 31-year-old inmate on the winning debate team, told the Wall Street Journal, “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.” Hall is currently serving a sentence for manslaughter.

Teammate Carlos Polanco, also 31 and incarcerated for manslaughter, praised the Bard program by adding, “We have been graced with opportunity. They make us believe in ourselves.”

According to the program’s website, of the nearly 300 Bard graduates from the prison initiative, only 2% have returned to prison. This is a staggering number considering the state average recidivism rate of 40%.

“[The program] saves taxpayers money, while increasing public safety,” according to the BPI website. “Regardless of the path they choose, all [prisoners] are radically less likely to return and are far better prepared to lead productive and fulfilling lives when free.”

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Congratulations, Bard Prison Initiative team! To find more information about the program, please visit

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