We’re all familiar with the phrase, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and even though in this case that cover is painted by a dark past, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the cover will always be applicable.

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Three men, currently incarcerated at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for violent crimes, recently took the stage for an organized formal debate against three undergraduates from Harvard University. In a battle that most would expect to be one-sided (in favour of the students of one of America’s most prestigious post-secondary institutions), onlookers were shocked by what they instead saw and heard.

The three inmates — Carl Snyder, Carlos Polanco, and Dyjuan Tatro — outdueled their opponents quite handily. One of the event’s judges, Mary Nugent, revealed that though both sides did an admirable job in the debate, the group from Harvard failed to cover parts of the debate that the prisoners effectively addressed.

This isn’t the first time that the prison debate team has defied odds, having beaten the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York in the spring of 2014, as well as a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont later that year.

What makes the accomplishment even more impressive is that the inmates are not given internet access in preparation for the competition. The group must rely solely upon books and articles, which they must request and often have to wait weeks before receiving.

While some may argue that, given their circumstance, the inmates have nothing but time to prepare for the competition, it is nevertheless hard to believe that their success does not shatter most of our preconceived notions about them. I personally loved reading this story, since it reminded me not to let someone’s past dictate how I feel about them in the present. We all have the power to completely transform ourselves at any given point in our life.

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The three inmates are a part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which started in 2001 with the intention of giving liberal arts educations to motivated inmates. What is particularly impressive about the initiative is that, according to program leaders, out of the over 300 alumni less than 2% returned to prison within 3 years.


What are your thoughts on this accomplishment? Does it surprise you? Let us know via the comment section below.

Featured image by Peter Foley of The Wall Street Journal


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