Harvard university debate team loses to New York prison inmates
National debate champions from top Ivy League institute lose to team from Eastern New York Correctional Facility
On one side of the stage were three of the brightest students from one of America’s top Ivy League universities.
Sitting just yards away for the high profile debate were not peers from Yale or Princeton, but three men convicted of violent crimes such as manslaughter who are currently incarcerated at the maximum security Eastern New York Correctional Facility.
It was a debating contest like no other – and despite arguing for a motion that they firmly disagreed with – the prisoners defied the odds and beat their Harvard opponents to cheers from the audience.
The three inmates, Carl Snyder, Dyjuan Tatro and Carlos Polanco, were tasked with arguing that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the US illegally.
The inmates impressed the judges by suggesting that if public schools turned the students away, non-governmental organisations or wealthier schools could step in and provide better education to the children in any case.
“They caught us off guard,” Anais Carell, a 20-year-old student told the Wall Street Journal, adding how impressed the Harvard students, who are the current national champions, had been by their opponents.
The inmates’ debating team is part of an initiative from the nearby Bard College.
In the two years since they started their debating club, the prisoners have beaten teams from the US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont but, in what has been described as “like something from a film written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck”, the Harvard victory is the biggest of them all.
“Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigour and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,” said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which operates in six New York prisons. “Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty.”
Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens in prison for manslaughter, said: “We have been graced with opportunity. They make us believe in ourselves.”
Dhruva Bhat, president of the Harvard College Debating Union told Boston.com: “The prison initiative reached out to us to set up a debate, and we agreed. We wanted to be of any help we could be.
“The debating team thinks debating is a powerful tool, and we want to work with other organisations to try to get public debating in more public schools. Debating has changed our lives and this confirmed how powerful a tool education and debating can be.”
He said that the Harvard team had “definitely not” gone easy on the inmates. “That would have been incredibly disrespectful of their talent and work,” he added.
Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter who is another member of the debating team, told the Wall Street Journal: “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”