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.