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Maximum security prisoners vs Union debaters: Guess who won?

Update: It wasn’t Cambridge


On Friday 19th, 3 Cambridge Union debaters travelled to Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, N.Y., and participated in a debate with maximum security inmates on “This house believes that all states have a right to nuclear weapons.”

Whilst Cambridge chose to argue in opposition, and the prisoners had to therefore argue in favour, the prisoners were judged to have won. Camara Hudson, who has volunteered extensively in debate education work, announced the result after 20 minutes of deliberation.

The debate was part of the Bard Prison Initiative, under which 350 current inmates are enrolled in degree programmes. This is led by Bard College, a private liberal arts college located in New York State. The programme gained recognition in 2015, when the same debate team beat Harvard on "This house believes that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students".

The three students involved in the debate are Julia Wiener, studying Law at Churchill, Christoph Marshall, studying English at Christ's, and Andrew Tang, studying Economics at Corpus. Marshall, in keeping with the stereotype, donned a waistcoat for the occasion. He was previously involved in prison work on his gap year. Wiener described the experience as this on her Linkedin:

"The gentlemen I had the privilege of debating on Friday were some of the most fascinating and eloquent people I have ever met. The Bard Prison Initiative does lifechanging work, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to play a small part in it. I hope that stories like these will contribute to a culture that values – and funds! – higher education in prisons, so that people like Reggie and his teammates can show just how much they can shine."

Christoph Marshall, when approached for comment echoed Wiener's sentiments. He told the Tab that whilst there he met:

"Some of the most composed and rhetorically effective speakers and one of the most enthusiastic audiences I’ve ever come across in my time doing this, in an exceptionally harsh and punitive environment. The three guys had been in prison since well before I was born, when they were seventeen, but handled their situation with a dignity and grace that is beyond belief; some of the most marginalised citizens in the western world. I hope this debate and all the other successes of the bard prison initiative are recognised as a ringing endorsement for prison education."

Despite the prisoners having no access to the internet, the Eastern debate team, working in conjunction with the Bard Debate Union, have now beaten Harvard, West Point (the US military academy) and Cambridge debate teams. The project aims to increase civic involvement amongst the prisoners alongside their degree studies, and enable them to engage in their own governance.

If you are interested in reading about the debate in more detail, the Washington Post published a feature on the debate.

Photo Credits to The Cambridge Union and Micheal Noble