In 2015 the Harvard College Debating Union suffered a loss from a group of college students from the Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Harvard asked for a rematch that took place Friday. The students, all convicted of state crimes, are part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls more than 325 inmates across seven New York state prisons. About 20 of them take part in the debate program, reports the Wall Street Journal. “It’s like having a football team,” said Dyjuan Tatro, who was a member of the team that defeated Harvard in 2015 and now works at Bard on the expansion of college-in-prison programs. He said when he was incarcerated at Eastern, correction officers and inmates alike rallied around the debaters. After their Harvard win, the prison team continued debating twice annually, besting teams from Brown and Duke universities, and losing to the University of Pennsylvania when debating whether the U.S. should provide monetary reparations for American Indian boarding schools. Coach David Register attributed his team’s 12-4 record to obsessive preparation, teamwork, and more life experience than most of their opponents.
Both sides prepared for months ahead of Friday’s contest. The proposition being debated: The corporatization of higher education does more harm than good. Harvard, as the visiting team, chose to argue in favor of that position. In preparation, Register handed his debaters, who don’t have online access, books and 400 pages printed off the internet. During weekly sessions, they rehearsed arguments and discussed strategies. Harvard students discussed strategy and framing, and assigned each debater a specific focus. Friday’s debate came as college-in-prison programs have grown. In the 2021-22 academic year, more than 13,000 inmates enrolled in college programs across the U.S., up from 6,000 in 2016-17, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, which supports increased funding for such initiatives. The debate over college in prison has shifted amid expanded funding and a recognition that most prisoners will re-enter society. While some institutions have focused on a broad expansion allowed by remote learning through tablets, others like Bard have advocated for in-person classes of a comparable level to those at undergraduate colleges. At the debate, prisoners argued that colleges were failing due to dwindling public funding and that partnerships with corporations led to internships and jobs. The judges called it for Harvard, by a 2-1 vote. It was a close call, one judge said, adding that the Eastern team had been required to argue what seemed the tougher position.