Convicted and Convincing: How a felon debate team beat the Harvard Debate National Champions


What do felons at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility and students at Harvard have in common? “Not much”, would probably be your first response. After all, Harvard is known for its high quality education and prestigious graduates that leave that institution destined for success. The people that leave the correctional facility don’t usually have the same advantage. But all that is changing thanks to programs like the Bard College Initiative.

People with criminal convictions have long been viewed by many as undeserving of being treated as we would any other person. It’s as if the label of “felon” strips them of their abilities to think, work or feel as anyone else can. There are few opportunities to show society that beneath the label is someone who might surprise you with what they can achieve if given the chance.

Recently, members of the Harvard Debate Team found out that their opponents were more than they bargained for. The Bard College inmate debaters took up the challenge of debating the Harvard undergraduates who happened to be this year’s national debate champions. You might expect it to be a struggle but what might surprise you is who emerged as the winner.

First there was the unlikely setting for the debate- a maximum-security prison where inmates can take courses taught by the faculty from nearby Bard College. Inmates at the facility have formed a debate club that helps teach them to argue constructively and to use words to win, both things that they might not have been accustomed to in their pre-incarceration lives.

Another surprise was the dedication of the Bard debaters. There are usually 15-20 students attending weekly two hour practice/ strategy meetings. Each participant has to be enrolled in debate while also carrying the load of their regular classes. Outside of their normal practice times, they talk debate in their cells, the prison yard and the mess hall. They practice their debating skills with other Bard students who are not on the debate team, and talk with their families. These become their extended coaches and give them the chance to perfect the arguments that will be used against their opponents.

The Harvard team wasn’t the first to go up against the prison debaters. The prison team has overcome the odds, beating teams from the US military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. After losing a rematch to West Point in April, the debate competition against West Point has become an annual event, with the prison team training hard to win the next match up in the spring.

On September 18, 2015, the Bard inmates faced off against Harvard at the prison. The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students. Their position was harder to argue due to the fact that the team opposed this position.

A veteran panel of debate judges ,Mary Nugent of Rutgers, Steven Penner of Hobart & William Smith and Lindsay Bing of Cornell, oversaw the debate and declared the winners. The judges believed that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters argued that if these so-called “drop out factories” refuse to enroll the undocumented children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools could step in, offering the students better educations. One of the judges was quoted as saying that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.

On its Facebook page, the Harvard team commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative. “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team posted after their loss.

The Bard program is funded through private donors and offers more than 60 academic classes each semester in its satellite campuses located at six medium- and maximum-security prisons in New York State. Inmates with a high school degree or GED apply for the program which requires written essays and a personal interview. The program‘s goal is to provide inmates with a liberal arts education so that when the students leave prison they are able to find meaningful jobs.

What is most important about the Bard program and the story of this debate is that it shows felon is a label that doesn’t always define who a person is or what their potential might be. By being judged strictly on their abilities, without bias or sympathy, the Bard debaters have proven that they can compete with others if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, society in general has not shown itself ready to give most felons that opportunity.

Housing and employment options are limited due to the overwhelming use of background restrictions against anyone with a conviction. While the courts might impose a certain amount of time for a person’s conviction, society has imposed a life sentence in most cases. With over 2 million individuals currently in jails or prisons, and over half a million prisoners released each year, the need for more programs like the Bard College Initiative will continue to grow.

The Bard debaters are not alone in being able to meet the challenge and excel against equally qualified individuals. It is reported that there are over 60 million Americans that have a conviction in their background. Brendan Spaar is involved in Georgia criminal justice reform and hopes that the success of the Bard debaters will encourage society to give another chance to people wanting to regain a productive life.

A picture is worth a thousand words but is it worth a fine?

food photos

Almost everyone has had this experience; you’re minding your own business and get a text or email from someone that can’t wait to share their pictures of what they’re eating. Is it supposed to make us envious that the other person is enjoying something that we can only drool about? Some of the pictures are funny while others are just a way of sharing an experience with others not lucky enough to be there for the real thing.

It’s almost impossible to go on Instagram without seeing thousands of pictures of food. The phenomenon even has a name- “food porn or “food boasting”. You may wonder if the people ever have time to eat the meals they capture with their cameras. It might be time to put down the camera and pick up the fork instead.

Brendan Spaar has been on the sending and receiving end of some great food pictures. A favorite one was taken at a small out of the way BBQ place in Alaska. The surprise of finding great BBQ in Alaska was definitely a “must share” moment. The owners of the BBQ joint were only too happy to have word of their business shared with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, not everywhere is this the case.

Sharing your food with someone might be allowed at some restaurants in Germany but sharing photos of that food could be expensive. Diners in Germany have learned that if you take a picture of a dish in a restaurant without prior permission, you might be violating a chef’s copyright for their creation and can be liable to pay a hefty fine.

Chefs have long been portrayed as being possessive about their “secret” recipes for many of their dishes. Now it seems to have gone a bit past just being annoyed. As of 2013, German law now includes “applied arts” in the list of things protected by their copyright laws. It is now easier for chefs to sue anyone who posts a picture of their food without permission.

The essence of the ruling is, “In individual cases, shared pictures may be illegal. At worst, a copyright warning notice might come fluttering to the social media user. For carefully-arranged food in a famous restaurant, the cook is regarded as the creator of a work. Before it can be made public on Facebook & Co., permission must first be asked of the master chef.”

The law appears to be designed to protect the “masterpiece” creative creations that some chefs take their time creating as signature dishes. However, it doesn’t rule out food from any other type establishment. Unless you have permission to capture the food moment with a camera, it can wind up costing you much more than the price of the meal.

There haven’t been any reported cases of chefs filing suit over pictures yet. So if a visit to Germany is on your Bucket List, don’t forget that a picture may be worth a thousand words but is it worth a fine? Before you decide to snap that picture of the delicious bratwurst you’ve ordered while enjoying Oktoberfest, remember Brendan Spaar’s advice and ask permission.

Signs that you might be getting a ticket

Have you ever been driving along & come to an intersection where someone is standing by the road holding a cardboard sign? Some claim to be homeless wanting help or needing money for gas or food. There have even been people claiming to be disabled or pregnant in an attempt to touch the hearts & wallets of drivers going by. Brendan Spaar has seen this many times while driving in Forsyth County & on his way into Atlanta , Georgia.

The “ roadside entrepreneurs” are making a business of collecting money from the sympathetic drivers stopped for a light. There’s even an online site that tells you how to effectively panhandle. If you go to you can easily learn how to make your career as a successful “down and outer”. It has been reported that some of these people can make thousands of dollars with a piece of cardboard & a convincing story. They rarely get arrested & the income they make can make it profitable.

Most people are in a hurry once they get behind the wheel. When stopped at a light they tend to ignore what goes on around them. Since people holding signs at traffic lights have become more common, they almost blend in with the surroundings. Drivers in some cities are finding that ignoring someone with a cardboard sign could be a costly mistake.

Some cities are having police officers pose as sign holders in an attempt to crack down on drivers that aren’t wearing seatbelts or are using their cell phones to illegally talk or text. One of the undercover sign holders is the San Bernardino, California police department. They recently set up on the side of an interstate off ramp wearing regular clothing & holding a sign that read, ‘I am not homeless. SB Police. Looking for seat belt / cell phone violations.’ As drivers exited the ramp they were ticketed if they were observed to be on their cell phones or not wearing their seatbelts.

The 4 hour stakeout was a success in the eyes of the police department. There were 50 vehicle stops which resulted in 33 drivers getting tickets for cell phone violations, 15 tickets for seat belt violations, & 5 cars were impounded due to drivers having suspended licenses or no license at all. While the sign holders weren’t looking for handouts, it did wind up costing the drivers with violations.

It doesn’t appear that this has been put to use by the police departments around the Atlanta area but Brendan Spaar still suggests that drivers be aware of anyone holding signs on the side of the road. Having a conviction for a traffic violation on your record can hurt your wallet & car insurance rates.

Oklahoma says hoodies aren’t ok.

Brendan Spaar says no to hoodies


Everyone wants to live and work in a safe environment. If you go into a bank these days it’s not uncommon to see signs saying to remove hats or sunglasses that could disguise your face. These are things that we’ve grown accustomed to and pretty much don’t give a second thought. Well, a state senator in Oklahoma wants to take it one step further.

Oklahoma already has a law that bans people from hiding their identity by wearing clothing that covers their faces, including hooded sweatshirts, during the commission of a crime. Republican state senator Don Barrington has proposed an amendment to that bill to make it illegal to hide your identity in public for the rest of the people too.

If the proposed change passes, you will no longer be allowed to wear anything that might hide your face. This could include sunglasses, hooded shirts or jackets and some hats. This has many people concerned about being stopped or harassed for wearing something that might be questionable. The weather in Oklahoma can get wet and cold so wearing a hoodie is not an uncommon sight for residents of the state.

There are a few exceptions to the ban. It wouldn’t apply to people dressing up for Halloween, masquerade parties or parades. Anyone required to cover their faces because of religious beliefs would also be exempt. It also allows  people who have to cover their faces for safety or medical purposes, or for protection from the weather to be exempt.

If you get caught with a fashion offense the fine would be $500. Reaction from some residents and attorneys is less than positive. Will this make Oklahoma a safer place? It seems doubtful that this alone would curb a rise in crime. Enforcement will be interesting and Brendan Spaar would love to be in court to watch the first case go to trial.

Walmart is the Energizer Bunny of shopping. It just keeps going & going!

Almost everywhere you go in the US, you can’t help but pass a Walmart. The stores seem to pop up everywhere and are always busy. Need chips and hot dogs for the weekend game? Walmart has it. Got weeds in your lawn? Hit the garden center at Walmart. Brendan Spaar wonders what we did before Walmart took over our shopping lives.

Get ready for the next Walmart experience- health clinics! The latest area for the Walmart invasion consists of health care clinics in some of its stores. A certified nurse practitioner will help you with many medical issues for the low starting price of $40. The clinics will accept insurance, Medicare and the usual cash, check or credit cards. If you were working out in the yard and pulled up some vines that gave you a rash, you can now go to certain Walmart stores and get the rash treated while you buy weed killer for the poison ivy.

Brendan Spaar hasn’t seen a clinic at any of the local Walmarts in Cumming, Ga but on August 29,2014 there were 2 clinics opened in Georgia. Is this the sign of things to come? CVS and Walgreens have medical clinics at some of their stores. This could be a low cost option for people that don’t have the time or money for a regular office visit at a doctor’s office. If people are worried about Obamacare being expensive then this might help them out. Walmart employees only pay a $4 charge to use the clinic. This might be a smart move because sick employees lose money if they have to be out.

It will be interesting to see how well this works. One wonders what will be the next Walmart idea. Maybe a vet clinic so you could get your flu shot and Fido’s shots at the same time. You never know!

Brendan Spaar says Watch out for this on the GA 400!

The Active Lane Assist on the Infiniti Q50s is not auto-pilot!
Manufacturer: Infiniti
Model: Q50s

Driving an Infiniti can be a life changing experience- especially if you decide to climb out of the driver’s seat while the car is in adaptive cruise control. The Infiniti Q50s has an Active Lane Assist that is supposed to help you stay in your own lane & correct drifting but you shouldn’t decide to do something crazy like read a book, make a sandwich or move from the driver’s seat just to prove you can.

There is a video online ( made by two German men leaving the driver’s seat while the car is driving down the highway. The Active Lane Assist & adaptive cruise control make it appear to be on auto-pilot. Now this isn’t on a closed track with extra safety controls in place. You can see the traffic ahead on the highway. Brendan Spaar doubts Infiniti will be using the video in any marketing ads.

Brendan Spaar owns an Infiniti & will quickly tell you it is a great driving car. However, the need for speed &  performance requires paying attention too. So next time you’re driving down GA 400 just hope no one decides to test the Active Lane Control like the Germans did.

Does Reality Tv drama lead to more real life drama?

Real Housewives
Reality TV stars in Atlanta & NJ don't have enough drama on their shows so they been arrested & charged with multiple counts of fraud.

Brendan Spaar believes anyone watching Reality TV would think the stars have enough drama on the show so they would want their private lives to be calm. Guess that’s not true for the stars of The Real Housewives of Atlanta & New Jersey. Phaedra Parks’ husband has been arrested in Georgia & faces federal fraud charges. The charges accuse Nida of stealing millions with identify theft. In New Jersey, Teresa and Joe Giudice pleaded guilty  March 4, 2014 to multiple federal fraud charges. Joe Giudice pleaded guilty to five counts in a 41-count  indictment against the couple. Teresa Giudice pleaded guilty to four counts. Some counts in the indictment had carried maximum sentences of 20 and 30 years in prison.

Wonder if this is the beginning of a new series for these stars behind bars.