Ongoing debates about immigration are nothing new. When the debate occurs between prison inmates and students Harvard University– and the prisoners win– even the most passive of observers take notice.
Prisoners debated as part of the Eastern New York Correctional Facility debate team– a result of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI.) The initiative, annually funded to the tune of $2.5 million annually privately-donated money, operates as a kind of second chance to take advantage of educational opportunities that can help inmates build a more meaningful and productive life when they return to the outside world.
The BPI vs. Harvard debate took place earlier this fall with the resolution: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” It was a position with which the prisoners profoundly disagreed, yet they were tasked with arguing the position in the affirmative.
Although the BPI team argued an anti-immigrant position where access to public funds is concerned, their methodology also put forth a striking moral argument. Rather than tugging at heartstrings through arguments centered on the innocence of children, the prisoners focused on impoverishment and failing schools that amount to little more than warehousing students in “dropout factory” institutions. As many who lack education and who live in impoverished neighborhoods turn to a life of crime, the next step for undocumented students in this situation would be prison. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the scenario a “school to prison pipeline”
In order to make their case in the affirmative– that school administrators dealing with overcrowded and underfunded schools can deny entry to undocumented students– the put forth the argument that wealthier segments of society would step in with assistance. Through a combination of donations from nonprofit institutions and open doors from wealthier schools, the inmates argued, students would ultimately receive a good education.
One of the great ironies of the event is that the personal and social benefits of education is a realization prison debaters only came to know after incarceration. According to The Wall Street Journal, 31-year-old inmate Carlos Palanco, serving his sentence for manslaughter, says he would never deny education to a child, under any circumstance. Where BPI is concerned, he says, “We have been graced with opportunity.”