The Bard Prison Initiative debate team who famously defeated Harvard College students last October put another notch in their belt. This time, in poetic fashion, the prison inmates bested students at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Members of the Bard team, all inmates at a maximum security prison, are enrolled in a college program at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. They go through a competitive screening process to get there, joining about 1,000 others who made the cut.
Their winning streak in debate demonstrates the cognitive potential that exists in the massive U.S. prison system. This is what motivates the Bard Prison Initiative, which is funded mostly through private donations. Graduates of their college program have an astonishingly low 2 percent rate of recidivism.
“The success of this team reveals the potential and the capacity of incarcerated people,” said Max Kenner, founder of the initiative. It shows “how much more has to be done to rethink college admissions, access and opportunity in prison and otherwise.”
State officials decided to boost funding for the program in January by using money from criminal forfeitures to add another 500 students.
Rigorous debate under a logical framework, avoiding the use of fallacies, is no easy task. The topic at West Point was whether American corporations should have constitutional rights, with the Bard team arguing yes while the West Point team argued no.
“Judge Jessica Bullock said both sides were prepared but Bard had a more cohesive approach. “What was beautiful was the clash around the central question—which team created a better world for individual rights,” she said.
The Bard side did so, she said, by citing instances such as Apple Inc. fighting the government’s attempt to access a private iPhone.”
It would be interesting to take the debate further, asking if constitutional rights actually exist today in any semblance of the form they once did. Some would argue that mass surveillance and a permanent state of war have rendered these rights obsolete.
The question of corporations having constitutional rights may be largely irrelevant as we already have what can be called a corporatocracy. Those corporations that align with the interests of government are welcomed aboard to extract wealth from the masses and centralize power.
The prison debate team defeating the best of the premier military academy is particularly fitting, as the military-industrial complex is one of the most significant facets of the corporatocracy, imprisoning untold numbers of foreigners while thriving on death and destruction.
Maj. Adam Scher seemed to find value in his West Point team losing to prison inmates. “We want to make the entire human condition known to our…future military leaders,” Scher said.
More importantly, the event should bring attention to the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., which holds 25% of the world’s prisoners despite having only 5% of the world’s population. Most prisoners are jailed for victimless crimes, including those under mandatory minimum sentences for things like marijuana possession.
Creating criminals, like the military-industrial complex creating war, is just another profitable venture for the corporatocracy.