Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The mismeasuring of Man – Thoughts on NY Prison team’s great run in debating.

The mismeasuring of Man – Thoughts on NY Prison team’s great run in debating.
By this time, it is common news that one of the finest debating teams in this country (Harvard Univ) lost to a bunch of inmates from the New York correctional facility, on a topic that is not merely controversial in present circumstances, but highly relevant and topical as well. Do we continue providing free education to illegal immigrants to the detriment of quality in public schools? The team from NY East side prison, students of highly esteemed Bard University, who have been running this Prison initiative for several years now with great success, argued in the affirmative. A position they were hardly be expected to take; but they did, and defended it with brilliant arguments presented with aplomb and conviction. This team is not a rookie any more. They have been tearing down opponents in last two years, notably their stunning defeat of teams from West point and University of Vernon in quick succession vindicates their caliber, intellectual poise and commitment to academic discipline.
Well, the point of my essay is different though. While there has been a lot of brouhaha over this victory on social media, news and television, I have a slightly different take on this. Not in the sense of belittling this tremendous achievement, but merely looking at this episode from another vantage point. Frankly, all this adulation is being heaped on the underdogs, not because they are truly “underdogs”, in the sense of the term as someone who has no proven talent, but only because they are from a correctional facility; and our popular ingrained prejudice or opinion that those who are in prison are not capable of intellectual cogitation or doing well academically. And I challenge this notion. For starters, historically, the concepts of incarcerating individuals in prisons for social crimes is relatively new in recorded history. Probably, it’s started around the 15th century, and not surprisingly one of the first known prison houses was established in Britain. That is not to say that there were no Jails before. They have been very much a part of civilization, but only for those who were grave threats to kingdoms, religious orders and personally offensive to reigning aristocracy. Common man paid for nominal crimes right there on the streets. Flogging, eviction from community, strict social injunctions preventing any form of social intercourse for a period of time, servility - these were the penances aka punishments for deviations from established rules and laws in any given society; and once administered they were free to join the world. There was no stigma attached to it. It was a collective act, and once all members were convinced that an offender has paid for his deviation; they held no malice in their hearts and gave the victim every opportunity to grow. The modern democratic age spawned by Renaissance, however changed the face of crime and punishments. The all-powerful state became the arbiter of Law and justice, and essential human element, which was a predominant factor in maintaining order in earlier times was replaced by abstract laws and injunctions that took their own course with utter disregard to nature of a crime or circumstances that gave rise to it. A prison, under these new circumstances, now became not a place only for proven offenders, but for anyone suspected of minor violation as well. All kinds of acts -economic, social, political, and racial - were now categorized under crimes, and correction facilities began swelling in numbers. Modern Governments spend billions of dollars maintaining and running these facilities. Last year alone US spent 37 Billion on prisons, hosting nearly 40% of total prisoners held worldwide. Drugs, terrorism, poverty, abuse – common causes of crime has pushed the system to a point of break down. The most important effect of this is on the prisoners themselves, once they come out of their sentences. The kind of socio-economic ethos we have created leaves them no opportunity to integrate with normal life. Nearly half of them return to prisons within three years on a similar of different offence; and those who fortunately don’t, find themselves ostracized and delegated to the lowest rungs of society where it would seem a better choice to return to prison than stay out of it.
In a highly opinionated and dehumanized society that we live in, it is easy for us to think that prisoners cannot be intellectually vibrant; if they were, why did they go to prison in the first place? Well, there could be multiple debatable answers to this question, and the only point I want to make is that it has nothing to do with their intellectual apparatus. Given the right circumstances, persistence and guidance – formal education is accessible to everybody. One of the raging debates of the twentieth century was the relationship between measured intelligence (IQ) and racial differences. Darwinian Theory had many repercussions, some tremendously important for Human progress and others quite the opposite; and one of it was the use to which it was put for nearly two hundred years to prove superiority of the white race. Enough literature abounds in science, fiction and literature that is testament enough to this unwarranted bias. In his most poignant and socially relevant work “The mismeasure of Man”, the legendary Evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould tore ripped apart the fallacious argument and interpretation of Intelligence in purely Darwinian terms. The book went on to win the Pulitzer. I request my readers to read that book for more details. The fact that all three members of the New York prison debating team come from a racially different background and have gone through the academic rigor with more than enough diligence and care only goes to prove my point. The Bard Initiative, probably one of the few functional educational programs for Corrections, still available in this country made sure that all its students are strictly evaluated and trained. The only way to get convicts adjusted and tuned to world outside is to get to start believing and respecting themselves, and that will not happen by treating them with sympathy. They must be made to realize that when they go out, they meet with highly stratified world ready to judge and deride, and they must pushed to their limits to achieve academic excellence like all others. And that has been the real success of Bard. The rate of crime amongst its graduates is almost nil. They don’t come back to prison like others do. But unfortunately, such programs are costly and governments don’t have the budget to spend on them. Bard initiative is supported entirely by private donors. To me, the achievement of this team is not so much about the irrefutable and novel arguments they presented during the debate; but the fact that they worked their way through system with great confidence in themselves. No mentoring, No Googling - but by sheer exercise of their tenacious commitment to carve a new life for themselves; they have broken a taboo. Modern states must realize that they cannot afford to fill up their correction facilities with recurring criminals; and education is the only way out. In a country like Sweden, Prisons are being closed down as crimes rates plummet because of re-integration programs designed to brings social deviant personalities into the fold; but In USA, there is a growing demand for Correction facilities. Their jails are filled with people, who should ideally be out there in the world trying to make a life. The penalty we pay for being a litigious society is that only a few can break through the stigma of being branded a criminal once. And Bard’s initiative is perhaps the best way of out this predicament. Divert and absorb energies into a positive channel of inner growth and responsivity. It is to that end this victory of the NY east side prisons debating team sets a new bench mark. What such debates bring to the table is an awareness of what needs to be done to purge society of unsolicited crime. Definitely, good competitive education is one way; and the other is social acceptance of rehabilitated convicts.
In the Gym today, one fellow member made a comment “Hey, you know what, I think the judges were moved by the effort and declared them winners; not so much for what they spoke...” Well, it may be true. But in an event like a debate, there is always a little subjectivity that creeps in. My point is: If we can accept judge’s vote in Miss World contest on its merit, then we give the judgement in this debate its due as well. It is an age old adage that Criminals are not born, they are molded by circumstances. Which means, it is within our grasp to change circumstances to allow offenders a chance to organically outgrow their violent tendencies. That is the promise of Democracy.
God Bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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