By Ethan Wolff-Mann
October 6, 2015
Raedle, Joe—Getty Images

They say it’s not where you go, but what you make of it, and three inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison located in Napanoch, NY, proved that last month, triumphing over three students from the Harvard College debate team in a debate.

The exhibition was part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program run by Bard College to provide college education to qualifying inmates in an attempt to boost post-incarceration employment potential and reduce recidivism. Based on the debate, these results are not hard to believe.

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The teams squared off on the topic of whether undocumented students could be denied enrollment in schools by the government, with the prisoners arguing in favor of the resolution. The inmates focused on high dropout rates for immigrants and that they would be essentially “warehoused,” according to a Wall Street Journal reporter who was present.

The prisoners’ education is very real—Bard does confer diplomas to its graduates who complete the demanding workload—but they have to do everything old-school, with prison-vetted books. There’s no Internet allowed in the can.

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It’s true that the success of Bard’s program in the debate—they’ve also beaten University of Vermont and West Point students—is a mark for individual hard work over name-recognition, it also illustrates the flip side of the argument. At the end of the day, one group of students went back to Harvard and all its connections, and the other went back to prison.