A group of prison inmates defeated the Harvard debate team

Image: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
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Harvard’s debate team picked up a world championship last year. But just last month, they were defeated by an unlikely opponent: a team composed of maximum-security prison inmates.

The inmates, all convicted of violent crimes, are incarcerated at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskill mountains, and are enrolled at the Bard Prison Initiative, a program which allows inmates to take courses through the prestigious Bard College.

The team had to defend the following argument: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story, the inmates won by making the case that schools admitting undocumented students are underfunded “dropout factories” that warehouse children, and that other organizations could do a better job educating the undocumented students.

The same prison debate team also beat the US Military Academy at West Point last year, despite significant handicaps in preparation. The Bard initiative students can’t use the internet, only use materials provided by Bard–and those can take a long time to be approved by prison officials.

In a Facebook post, the Harvard team graciously acknowledged their defeat:”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 team also told that they did not go easy on the inmate team. “That would have been incredibly disrespectful of their talent and work,” said team president Dhruva Bhat.

Past participants of the Bard program have gone on to pursue further studies at Columbia and Yale.