by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Yesterday, the Guardian reported that:
Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.
The showdown took place at the Eastern correctional facility in New York, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition….
The prison team has proven formidable in the past, beating teams from the US military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. They lost a rematch against West Point in April, setting up a friendly rivalry between the teams. The competition against West Point has become an annual event, and the prison team is preparing for the next debate in spring.
Kenner said the Bard prison initiative, which has expanded since 2001 to six New York correctional facilities, aims to provide inmates with a liberal arts education so that when the students leave prison they are able to find meaningful work.
“The purpose of work is not to reform criminal justice per se,” Kenner said, “but to engage and to relate to people who are in prison, who have great capacity and who have that dedication and willingness to work hard, as we engage any other college students.”
Among formerly incarcerated Bard students who earned degrees while in custody, fewer than 2% have returned to prison within three years, a standard measurement period for assessing recidivism. This is exceptionally low, when contrasted with the statewide recidivism rate, which has hovered for decades at about 40%.
The Bard program, which is funded through private donors, offers more than 60 academic classes each semester across its satellite campuses located at six medium- and maximum-security prisons in New York state. Inmates with a high school degree or equivalent apply for the program with written essays and a personal interview. Admission is competitive, with nearly 10 inmates applying for every spot available.