Last years' world champions, the Harvard debate team recently loss to three men currently incarcerated at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. The story is being covered by several media outlets. You may have read about it, and even enjoyed it. We all enjoy heartfelt stories that provide a momentary reprieve from daily stress. I was among the thousands of people that watched the video of the cute salsa dancing police officer. I also read the light hearted articles that featured white officers being nice to sweet little Black children. Beyond a simple "oh that was nice" I don't typically process it on a deeper level. Could this be a byproduct of living in a society where my experience with police officers is a stark contrast to the underlying messages of those images? Perhaps. Or maybe it's just the constant influx of ever changing media coverage that attributes to how quickly we mentally disregard headlines after a couple of circulations.
The bottom line is the "feel good" factor of the victory by the prison debate team is undeniable. However, to dismiss it once the media stops covering it would be a mistake. Beyond personal testimonies of the inmates, their story is important for at least three distinct reasons:
1) The potential to change the perception of incarcerated individuals. First comes the spotlight, then comes the chance of reform. In order for reformation to occur with mass incarceration rates effective policies are needed. If the amount of national spotlight given to a particular issue is the independent variable then the new legislation imposed is the dependent variable. If society at large views all incarcerated individuals as not only scary, but having no chance of redemption then continual support and attention will be minimal. The depiction of incarcerated men that are brilliant and ambitious can help reframe how incarcerated people are viewed. This could potentially garnish more positive attention and public support, which is a prerequisite to maintaining the attention of legislators.
2) A reminder that a formal education is not the only indicator of intellect. Our idea of success is different today. Working your way up the corporate ladder and securing a comfortable position within an established company is no longer the only definition of success. Learning to monetize your distinctive skills to create a company is more common than ever before. Yet, the type of advances degree an individual holds is still a barometer used to measure intellect. Just to be clear, I obtained a Master's Degree 10 years ago and the significance of a formal education does not escape me. However, the sheer brilliance of a person should never be disregarded because they lack a formal education. Beyond the moral ramifications of doing this, if the natural gifts of an individual are not deemed substantial because they lack an advanced formal education, then we run the risk of missing out on the great resources they provide.
3) A compelling case for restoring college programs in prisons. The connection between lower recidivism rates and a higher education has been substantiated with a litany of research. Before we balk at the cost of these programs, research also suggest correctional education is more cost effective than incarceration. College programs within (or that work in conjunction with) correctional facilities could greatly impact the problem of mass incarceration.
Similar to all the "feel good" articles and videos we share online, the sensationalism of this story will eventually end. This is just one of many stories that we read about online. However, if a closer examination was conducted I suspect we may learn that each man on the prison debate team is also just one of many. One of many men of color that are imprisoned with brilliant minds that proved more than comparable against students from one of this nation's leading universities. The implications of this particular story should evoke a deeper exploration into the systematic factors contributing to this. When the coverage of this story ends I hope a much deeper examination begins.