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How a team of prison inmates beat Harvard at a debate - Vox

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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 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.


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.

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.

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