Last month, a debate team of three inmates with violent criminal records defeated a team of three Harvard University undergraduates.
It sounds like an underdog story plucked from the pages of a yet unwritten Walt Disney screenplay — and in some ways, it is.
But it’s also worth pointing out the fallacy of our underlying assumptions about such a matchup — the first (and most pernicious) being that criminals aren’t smart. If a definitive link between criminality and below-average intelligence exists, nobody has found it.
As the highly sophisticated prison break from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., made clear earlier this year, inmates not only can be intelligent but often are more capable and deliberate than those of us on the outside. Richard Matt may have been smart enough to tunnel his way out of prison using rudimentary engineering skills picked up on the fly, but like many career criminals, his greatest gifts were probably rhetorical in nature, prison staffers said.
The debate took place last month at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility,
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend,” the Harvard College Debating Union wrote on Facebook after the defeat, “and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”
Representatives from the Harvard team did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Washington Post.
What makes the victory over Harvard impressive is less about who pulled it off than how they did it.
To prepare for the competition, the inmates, members of Bard’s Prison Initiative, were forced to acquire knowledge the old-fashioned way: Without access to the Internet, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2015, can you seriously imagine preparing for anything — purchasing a movie ticket, looking up directions or researching basically anything — without going online?
Complicating their challenge, the Journal noted, was the fact that research requests for books and articles had to be approved by the prison administration, something that could take weeks.
Consider that for a moment: Weeks, not minutes or even days — and all while attempting to map out a research strategy that hinged upon institutional approval. If debate is equal parts rhetorical flourish and strategy, it’s worth asking whether circumstance forced the prisoners to devise an approach — in which limited resources demanded sharper focus and more rigorous planning — that resulted in superior lines of argumentation.
Going into the competition, the inmates, who had a solid decade of life experience on the college kids, knew the stakes extended well beyond the debate, largely because of how the two adversaries would be framed afterward.
“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here,” Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan who was convicted of manslaughter, told the Journal. “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”
And although it may be tempting to label the inmates as novices, they had something else going for them — a record of recent successes, as the Journal noted:
The prison team had its first debate in spring 2014, beating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Then, it won against a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and in April lost a rematch against West Point.
The annual debate with West Point has grown into a rivalry, according to the Associated Press.
The latest debate, about whether public schools should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students, was described by the Journal as “fast-moving.”
In the end, the inmates presented an elaborate argument with which they personally disagreed, essentially telling judges that if the children were denied admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would pick up the slack, according to the Journal.
Harvard team members told the paper that they were impressed by their opponents’ preparation and their unanticipated position.
“They caught us off guard,” Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, told the Journal.
Less surprised were those who helped teach the inmates in their college courses.
Some of the program’s students have continued their educations at Yale and Columbia universities, Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, told the AP. He noted that his students “make the most of every opportunity they have” and aren’t treated like men with criminal records in the classroom.
“Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus,” Kenner told the AP. “Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty.”