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How a team of prison inmates beat Harvard at a debate

Darren McCollester/Newsmakers via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, something surprising happened: A team made up of three New York state inmates faced off against a team of three Harvard undergraduates in a debate — and the prison inmates won.

People have responded with shock, with the story going viral on Facebook and Twitter over the past week. For many people, it goes back to one question: How could prison inmates, convicted of violent crimes, beat Harvard's debate team, the current national champions?

But this isn't that shocking, given the prison inmates' record: They have beaten some pretty impressive competition before, particularly debate teams from the US Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont.

Still, there are a few things that make this particular victory exceptional. For one, the inmates were arguing a position they don't even believe in: that US public schools should be able to deny enrollment to undocumented students. They also apparently did this by legitimately stumping the Harvard team: "They caught us off guard," Anais Carell, one of the Harvard students, told the Wall Street Journal. And, most impressively, they prepared for this debate without internet access, and the research they did conduct sometimes had to go through a prison administrative process that can take weeks.

The inmates argued that the public schools attended by undocumented students tend to be in pretty poor shape, so denying admission to these children would make it likelier that wealthier schools and nonprofits would step in and give them a better education. According to a judge, the Harvard team did well, but the Harvard students didn't address parts of the argument raised by the inmates.

So how did these inmates pull it off? The victory actually isn't too surprising for those familiar with the program the inmates are part of: the Bard Prison Initiative. It is this successful college program that not just helped three prison inmates trump Harvard, but has also helped hundreds more inmates get the education they need to integrate back into society upon their release. And it is these type of programs that many state and federal lawmakers are now banking on to help ease mass incarceration in America.

The Bard Prison Initiative has been an enormous success

A state prison in Dannemora, New York.

A state prison in Dannemora, New York.

Andrew Burton/Getty Image

The victory is a testament first to the three inmates, incarcerated at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, who won: Carl Snyder, Dyjuan Tatro, and Carlos Polanco. But it's also a testament to the program they're part of.

Launched in 2001, the Bard College program aims to give inmates a liberal arts education. The program is taken very, very seriously by the college: About 10 inmates apply for each spot through written essays and interviews, and each inmate is treated equally to any other student in the school, which serves more than 2,300 students in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The idea is to provide inmates with a college degree that unlocks all sorts of job opportunities after prison.

"The most important thing that our students' success symbolizes is how much better we can do in education in the US for all people," Bard Prison Initiative founder Max Kenner told the Huffington Post. "Our program is successful because we operate on a genuinely human level."

The program carries no tuition, according to the Wall Street Journal: Its $2.5 million annual budget is financed by private donors. That money goes to the education of the inmates, and also to help similar programs in nine other states follow the Bard model.

So far, the program has seen amazing results: Less than 2 percent of its participants returned to prison within three years, compared with the 40 percent of ex-offenders in New York state who do. Although it's unclear how much of that is the program's exact effects or selection bias: Since the application process is so rigorous, it's possible that the kind of inmate who is talented and motivated enough to apply to the program and get accepted by it is already much less likely to reoffend.

But there's a growing body of evidence that these kinds of programs can be crucial to helping inmates reintegrate into society once they're released, which is why several lawmakers — including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Barack Obama — have pushed to expand access to them in recent years.

College education programs reduce an inmate's chance of reoffending

A fence in a California prison.

Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

The most authoritative research on how education can benefit outgoing prisoners was done by the RAND Corporation in 2014.

The study looked at how education programs — not just college, but all efforts — can help address a big problem in the US: 40 percent of incarcerated individuals who leave federal and state prisons will commit new crimes or violate the terms of their release and be reincarcerated within three years. This is bad not just for the person being sent back to prison, but for the taxpayer — prisons are already crowded and costly, and any extra inmate adds tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

Ideally, an education can help solve this problem: High school and college diplomas make it easier for inmates to find a job, so they won't have to turn to crime to make ends meet once they're out of prison.

The RAND study backed the idea. It found that inmates who took part in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of their release than prisoners who didn't participate in the programs. And that meant big savings for taxpayers: Every $1 spent in correctional education programs translated to $5 saved in prison costs, RAND estimated.

The study comes with a big caveat: It's really difficult to research the effectiveness of these programs due to selection bias. The prisoners who sign up for and attend voluntary education programs are likely the people who are already most likely to succeed, since they're showing a drive to improve their situation once they get out of prison just by signing up for classes. The RAND study employed several controls to reduce the impact of this selection bias, but it's impossible to rule out completely.

The research also included high school and more basic education. So RAND's numbers don't represent the exact gains for just a college education program.

Still, the findings suggest that education programs in general reduce the likelihood of prison reentry. And for taxpayers, that likely means savings by helping solve a very big problem: mass incarceration.

These kinds of programs can ease mass incarceration

prison population 2013

Sentencing Project

Over the past three decades, tough-on-crime policies drove the US prison population to astronomical levels: America now imprisons more people than any other country in the world, and its incarceration rate is higher than any other country but Seychelles, a tiny African country that has filled its prison population through its war on pirates.

In the past few years, states and the federal government have tried to reduce their enormous prison populations through various policy reforms, such as reducing the length of prison sentences.

Another component to easing mass incarceration is making sure prison inmates don't reoffend, so they don't go back to prison upon release and refill the nation's facilities. That's one reason the Obama administration is testing a program that would open up Pell Grants, which fund college educations, to more prisoners — presumably, this would reduce the chance inmates will reoffend, reduce the prison population in the long term, and save taxpayers from paying for more inmates' incarceration.

But the push for education programs is part of a broader effort to reduce other barriers to integration, which are widely known as the "collateral consequences" of prison. For example, it's legal for employers to ask in job applications about someone's criminal record, and not hire someone for a prior crime — even something as minor as a marijuana possession offense. But this can make it much more difficult for inmates to reintegrate into society: If they can't get a job, they're much more likely to turn to criminal activities to make ends meet. So reformers started Ban the Box, which seeks to stop employers from asking about criminal records in job applications — although they can do criminal background checks later on in the hiring process.

Collateral consequences apply to all sorts of other issues, as well: People who have served out felony convictions often can't apply for public housing or Pell Grants. They can't vote in many states. They can't receive welfare benefits. All of these things can make it more difficult for a former inmate to get a job, or at the very least signal to him that society will never accept him — making him much more likely to turn to a life of crime.

Dismantling these collateral consequences and providing an education to inmates — especially if the education is taxpayer-funded — is, of course, not an idea without controversy. Many people genuinely believe that prisoners, especially those convicted of violent crimes, should face lifelong punishments for their misdeeds.

But that's shortsighted. Most prisoners are going to be let out at some point. If they face enormous barriers once they're out, they're going to be more likely to reoffend. Not only does that cost taxpayers even more money as they pay for that inmate's incarceration, but it defeats one of the purposes of prison in the first place — to stop and deter crime.

These are the underlying issues that programs like the Bard Prison Initiative seek to address. It's not just about beating the Harvard debate team or giving some inmates in New York state a better education — it's about showing these inmates and society as a whole that ex-prisoners can safely reintegrate if they're given the full opportunity to succeed.

Watch: How mandatory minimums contributed to mass incarceration