Leadership Blog

Bard Prison Initiative Debate Team

Gage Wakula

Today I want to tweak the format of our leadership blog and focus not on an individual, but rather on a group. If you haven’t heard or seen on any media or social media outlets, a group of inmates from Eastern New York Correctional Facility debated the Harvard College Debate Team and … won.

While it’s easy to judge a person for being incarcerated, it’s even easier to think a headline like this is satire. It’s not.

I did some deeper exploration into the context of the article and learned about a program entitled the Bard Prison Initiative or BPI for short. It’s an extension of Bard College in which faculty teach college courses to inmates at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Students do not simply get to attend the classes; they have to go through a rigorous application process where only one in ten will be accepted. The BPI offers up to sixty courses at any given time including subjects such as humanities, mathematics, science, and art. As of now, the liberal arts program has 300 students (male and female) and has continued to actively recruit and expand its access to other prisons and colleges. The most stunning part of the program however, is that the “The Bard program’s leaders say that of more than 300 alumni who earned degrees while in custody, less than 2% returned to prison within three years, the standard time frame for measuring recidivism.” Mind you, the national rate for recidivism over the course of three years falls right around 40%, and if that doesn’t draw your attention to the faulty penal system and prison reform, I’m not sure what will.

So, how exactly does this tie into leadership and specifically this blog? In order to accomplish great things in life, it requires a certain amount of self-accountability, discipline and hard work. In order to become a leader, one must master all these things as well as learn how to motivate others to do the same. But what does it take to inspire this motivation? One could certainly argue that winning a debate against one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world might suffice, but it goes much deeper than that. I was inspired to write about the Bard Prison Initiative debaters not only because of their rhetoric or debating skill, but because I admired their determination. They accepted the consequences of their poor decisions and chose not to blame others or feel sorry for themselves but rather prove to everyone that their failure can be turned into success.

One of my favorite quotes of all-time comes from the movie Batman Begins in which Thomas Wayne asks his son Bruce “And why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” While this quote remains fairly simple in terms of prose and meaning, I believe it resonates strongly with the BPI and especially their debate team. These men made choices in life that landed them behind bars. While many prisoners would simply go through the motions of prison life and accept a feeling of relinquished hope, these men chose another path. The path that required extensive dedication to research and education, living day to day as a convicted felon and an aspiring college student, and taking on the nation’s educated elite on issues affecting everyday life.

Now, I want to be clear in that I am not condoning the actions that landed them in prison nor am I attempting to highlight their status as heroes. I am simply arguing that we look to leaders for strength, courage and determination to accomplish things for the greater good and their peers. These men set an example for their fellow classmates and inmates that not everyone’s path is pre-determined after a criminal conviction and that the benefits of building people up will always outweigh giving out endless punishments. These BPI inmates have to live with the consequences of their decisions for the rest of their lives, but let them take great pride in knowing their actions have set a model for prisoners and law-abiding citizens alike who want to stand up and show society why it’s never too late to give up on oneself.

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