Eastern New York prisoners v. Harvard College

“We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we worked really hard.”
– Alex Hall, 31, convicted of manslaughter

By Saeeda Joseph-Charles
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

In mid-September, three men, all incarcerated for violent crimes, shared a stage with Harvard College undergraduates, ready to debate. The topic, whether undocumented students should be able to enroll in U.S. public schools, was a tough one. Carl Snyder, Dyjuan Tatro, and Carlos Polanco from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility were assigned to argue against letting undocumented students into public schools, a position none of them personally support. Yet, to the shock of the Harvard debate team, the judges decided in favor of the inmates.

Mr. Snyder, Mr. Tatro, and Mr. Polanco are part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program run out of Bard College, which “offers a rigorous college experience” to men and women who are serving prison sentences. Founded in 1999 by Max Kenner, who was a student at Bard College at the time, the program was intended to “restore meaningful education in the prison system.” The accomplishments of these three men alone speak to the success of this program, and show the potential of those we have locked away in our prisons and jails.

The Harvard debaters, in response to the loss, said that they were “caught off guard” by how well prepared the inmates were for the debate. The college students, however, should not have counted the Bard debate team out. The Bard team beat the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2014, and “a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont.” Although they lost to West Point in a rematch, the success of this program is non-debatable. From behind bars, without the use of the Internet and under the watchful eye of prison guards, these three men were able to conduct research and form a strong argument to support their position.

Incarceration historically has four purposes: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. For people who have been convicted of a crime, we constrain their freedom as retribution and to ensure that they cannot hurt anyone else. We use incarceration as a threat, in the hopes that it will incentivize people to make the right decisions. But if they don’t make the right choices, we hope that incarceration will rehabilitate them, allowing them to become law-abiding members of society. Unfortunately, rehabilitation tends to take a back seat to the other three purposes. Without the opportunity to learn from their mistakes while in prison, get an education, take up a trade, or find a hobby that they could turn into a career, many inmates return to criminal activity upon release. This pattern is even more pronounced among minority inmates.

In 2013, the National Institute of Justice explained that “African-Americans and Hispanics make up two-thirds” of the national inmate population, which then stood at 2.4 million. African-Americans only make up 12% of the U.S population, while Hispanics make up around 16.7%. Clearly, there is a disproportionate amount of African-American and Hispanic inmates, and there are a number of reasons why: discrimination, poverty, profiling, disproportionate sentencing, lack of education, over-policing, and the list goes on. The rate of recidivism is also disproportionately high, which is not surprising considering the lack of support and guidance provided to prisoners, most of whom are then released back into neighborhoods that offer them no opportunities. That is why programs like the Bard Prison Initiative are so important: as one debater said, it “makes us believe in ourselves.”

Of the 300 inmates who graduated from the program and have been released from prison, “less than 2% returned to prison within three years.” Compare that to New York’s overall 40% recidivism rate for ex-offenders who find themselves back in prison within that three year period. Unfortunately, even access to the Bard program is limited, with 1 in 10 inmates having the opportunity to participate. Furthermore, when programs like the Bard Prison Initiative are available for inmates, it is White male youth who “tend to be given greater opportunity” to participate. Rehabilitation programs, which can provide substance abuse and mental health treatment, education, and job training, are largely recommended for White offenders. Without the same opportunity to participate in these rehabilitation programs, the system ensures that Blacks and Hispanics will reoffend in the future.

The three minority inmates from the Bard Prison Initiative who defeated the Harvard debate team embody the importance of such programs. Because these programs are self-selecting, it is the people who want to learn from their mistakes, who want a better life, who want an education, and who want to change that participate. They are willing to spend hours researching, practicing, and debating. So why don’t we give them a chance to better themselves, and to contribute to our communities? Don’t we want people who have paid their debt to society to reenter with the skills and tools they need to succeed? What do we have to lose?