Prisons are classified as correctional institutions for a reason. Committing a crime does not make one irredeemable, and for the good of both that person and society at large, he must come out of incarceration a better person than he went in.
Often it does not happen like that. Conditions in prisons are deplorable, people face hardships in an environment they are ill suited for. Sometimes, the unforgiving nature of the experience breeds a worse man to be unleashed on society upon release.
And it’s something that cuts across societies, mostly irrespective of its level of development. The United States prisons system is often heavily criticised, although it does get it right sometimes.
And boy does it get it right this time! A debate team made up of prisoners from Eastern New York Correctional Facility took on one from Harvard in a debate on US education. After an hour of spirited debate, the prisoners were adjudges the winners.
The three prisoners, including some convicted of manslaughter, are enrolled at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. As part of the Bard Prison Initiative, the inmates are offered the chance to earn a diploma, to help build a better life on their return to the outside world.
The Harvard team received the invitation as part of the Initiative’s programs, and the issue debated was “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrolment to undocumented students.” The prisoners had to argue for the motion, despite their unfavourable opinion of it.
After an hour of intense debating, the panel adjudged them the winners. It was a great victory for the team, against students from the Ivy League Harvard, which is generally recognised as the top in the country.
“Judge Mary Nugent, leading a veteran panel, said the Bard team made a strong case that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
“The team proposed that if “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.”
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“They caught us off guard,” Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, told the Journal. The Harvard team where impressed with the prison teams preparation, and also said their unconventional argument had left them flat footed
The Harvard College Debating Union team is the US’ debating champions. The Bard team are also said to have beaten the US Military Academy and a University of Vermont team in past contests.
Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal: “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”
There is this really popular saying about how ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ I can think of no better lemonade than making something of yourselves despite being in prison.
Ghana’s prison system could use a few programs modelled along these lines.