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Prison Inmates Defeated Harvard's Debate Team. Seriously.

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Will Hunting already showed us that an expensive education is no guarantee of superiority, but if you're looking for a non-fictitious example, look no further: Harvard's illustrious debate team, winners of the 2014 world championship, was soundly trounced in competition this week by the unlikeliest of opponents. No, not a team of genius-but-delinquent janitors; it was actually a group of maximum-security prison inmates.

The prisoners in question were "residents" of the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, which allows inmates to enroll in courses taught by Bard College professors (as part of the Bard Prison Initiative). This led to the formation of a debate club, which threw down the gauntlet last month to Harvard for a good-natured competition -- one which the Ivy Leaguers gladly accepted.

Making matters even more interesting, the Bard team was asked to argue for the ability of public schools to deny enrollment to undocumented students, which isn't a viewpoint you'd expect prisoners to adopt easily. Still, that's how debates work, and it didn't stop the Bard team from laying down an argument that totally caught Harvard's elite off-guard and sweeping the competition.

It shouldn't be too surprising that the prison debate team performed as well as they did against Harvard when you consider their past performance, defeating teams from the University of Vermont and the US military academy at West Point -- in fact, West Point demanded a rematch (which they won), and the friendly rivalry's turned into an annual competition.

All the Harvard jokes aside, though, the Bard Prison Initiative is actually an important program worth highlighting, if only because of this stat: of the formerly incarcerated students who've earned degrees through the program, less than 2% have returned to prison within three years. This, compared with the statewide recidivism rate of around 40%, is a huge improvement.

All told, it turns out the main difference between an Ivy League student and a prisoner is simple opportunity. Oh, and the whole "committing a crime" thing. That too. 


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Gianni Jaccoma is a staff writer for Thrillist. Surprisingly, he's never been to prison before. Follow his scott-free tweets @gjaccoma, and send your news tips to news@thrillist.com