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Convicts from Maximum-Security New York Prison Take on Harvard Debate Team – and Win

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Elise Amendola/AP

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, take note! This would make for a great Good Will Hunting sequel.

Harvard University’s debate team was crowned world champions in 2014, and they won the national debate title a few months ago. But last month, they lost a match to a surprising team of rivals: A group of inmates at maximum-security Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

Inmates at the facility can take courses in debate taught by faculty from Bard College, and they formed a club at the prison two years ago. They’ve gone on to beat teams from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, with the latter developing into a rivalry and an annual competition.

The debate against Harvard centered around whether or not public schools should be allowed to turn away children whose parents entered the U.S. illegally. The inmates, tasked with defending the position (which many of them opposed), outlined and presented their arguments. Three students from Harvard’s team responded, after which a panel of judges declared the prison team victorious.

“The fact that we won is nice, but it isn’t the most important thing,” Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative (which operates in six New York prisons), told the Associated Press.

The club, he said, is more about developing skills than competition, but that doesn’t mean he’s surprised by the victory, either. “Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard’s main campus. Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty,” he added.

Harvard’s team was gracious in their defeat, posting the following comment on a team Facebook page: “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 Bard Prison Initiative offers inmates the opportunity to earn various degrees, and some graduates of the program have continued their studies at Yale and Columbia, according to Kenner. About 15 percent of Eastern New York Correctional’s all-male inmates are enrolled.

Because of restrictions placed on Internet access, students learn the old-fashioned way, with materials provided by Bard. “They make the most of every opportunity they have,” Kenner said.