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Bard Prison Initiative Debate Team defeats West Point and Harvard Debate Teams

by Erik Fogel | Apr 24, 2016 3:19:51 AM |

Why Debate


Great article on the Bard Prison Debate Initiative. Complete Article:

Prison Inmates Argue Their Way to a Win Against West Point

They did it again.

The debate team of New York prison inmates who beat Harvard College last fall had another triumph Friday, this time against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

A spokesman for the state corrections department confirmed that all three judges voted for the men in a maximum-security prison. They are students in the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a rigorous college program at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills.


“The success of this team reveals the potential and the capacity of incarcerated people,” said Max Kenner, founder of the initiative. It shows “how much more has to be done to rethink college admissions, access and opportunity in prison and otherwise.”

Maj. Adam Scher, assistant professor of politics at West Point and the academy’s debate coach, said before the competition that it would be “a hard-fought battle on both sides.”

The resolution: American corporations should not have constitutional rights. The Bard team argued that corporations should have such rights, while West Point’s team argued they shouldn’t. Each side had four members representing a bigger team.

Judge Jessica Bullock said both sides were prepared but Bard had a more cohesive approach. “What was beautiful was the clash around the central question—which team created a better world for individual rights,” she said.

The Bard side did so, she said, by citing instances such as Apple Inc. fighting the government’s attempt to access a private iPhone.

After the onslaught of media attention, sparked by The Wall Street Journal’s report of the Bard team’s triumph against Harvard last September, officials closed Friday’s debate to reporters.

‘The success of this team reveals the potential and the capacity of incarcerated people.’
—Max Kenner, founder of the Bard Prison Initiative
In previous matchups between the Bard Prison Initiative and West Point, each side won once. They have debated whether the U.S. should invest more in infrastructure and whether pharmaceutical research should be nationalized.

Debate has been a long tradition at West Point, where faculty said students should be involved in the policy discussions of the day. The National Debate Tournament among colleges was founded there in 1947 and hosted there through 1967, when it began traveling to new host schools.

Maj. Scher said debating the Bard Prison Initiative was a powerful opportunity for cadets to understand different perspectives and backgrounds. “We want to make the entire human condition known to our...future military leaders,” he said.

The Bard program, begun in 2001, gives liberal-arts educations for free to inmates who make it through a competitive screening process. Its officials say its graduates leave with marketable skills and less than 2% have returned to prison in three years, the metric for measuring recidivism. It is funded mostly through private donations.

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced a $7.5 million initiative to pay for college programs at New York prisons to cut recidivism rates and improve public safety.

The governor’s office said about 1,000 inmates yearly take college courses in privately funded programs now, and this money from criminal forfeitures would add another 500 students annually.

Critics of using public money this way say it is unfair to give violent offenders free college when so many taxpayers can’t afford tuition.

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com

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