Harvard University is the most esteemed of the United States’ Ivy League schools. Over its 200-year history, the institution built a reputation for accepting only the smartest and brightest young Americans into its lecture halls. Its rigorous curriculum produces world-changing alumni like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, and its debate union is virtually unbeatable.
With all those credentials, one might never predict that such a highly lauded debate team as Harvard’s would go toe to toe with a handful of prison inmates. But a few years ago, that’s exactly what happened — and when word of the academic showdown got to the press, it sent shockwaves across the globe.
It was October of 2015. Standing on a stage in the spartan function hall of the Eastern NY Correctional Facility were two groups of students with vastly different backgrounds. For the Harvard students, this event was commonplace; for the three men at the opposing lectern, it was a shot at hope.
Wall Street Journal
Carlos Polanco, Carl Snyder, and Dyjuan Tatro had come a long way from where they started. The three men had been incarcerated since their teens and twenties — Polanco and Snyder for murder, and Tatro for gang violence and racketeering.
Wall Street Journal
From an outside perspective, things weren’t looking too good for their future, considering the men’s dark pasts. The rate of recidivism, or the frequency that offenders will commit more crimes after being released, is often as high as 40%.
Christian Science Monitor
After being shifted around for several years, the three men met at the ENYCF. It was a formidable maximum-security prison, but within its walls they’d find a unique program that would turn out to be a guiding light.
This program, called the Bard Prison Initiative, was a branch of Bard College that provided high-quality education for students behind bars. Demand for a spot in the BPI was high: it could only accept ten percent of applicants and was renowned for its debate team.
Skiff Mountain Films
Tatro, Polanco, and Snyder all applied and gained accepted into the BPI. They joined the debate union, and for the first time, they had the opportunity to get a college degree. It was a new lease on life, and they were ravenous for knowledge.
Before they’d joined, the team had made waves debating the nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont, and word had spread that ENYCF was the place to be. Inmates from other prisons clamored to be transferred there.
As Polanco, Snyder, and Tatro acclimated to the team’s culture, they learned quickly, and the group began picking up speed. They practiced at lunch and while playing basketball. They debated against West Point and won. Other inmates cheered them on like they’d do for a football team.
One day, the team coach, David Register, proposed a new challenge to his debaters. They were getting pretty good: why not aim higher? He’d put in a call to Harvard University’s debate union. How would the BPI team feel about going up against them?
UNT North Texan
Although they agreed, and were excited for the challenge, BPI’s debate team was nervous. This match-up had never been done before, and the stakes were high. Harvard was Harvard, and had also just won a national debate title.
Moreover, the debate subject wasn’t easy. On the topic of whether public schools should be able to deny enrollment to children of undocumented immigrants, Harvard chose to argue that no, enrollment shouldn’t be denied. The BPI debate team had to argue yes — a position with which they strongly disagreed.
With Register’s help they began their research. Unlike students on the outside, the inmates didn’t have internet access, relying only on printed documents to prepare. Furthermore, any study materials brought into the prison had to be cleared by security.
Chronicle of Higher Education
On the day of the battle, three of the BPI’s finest were chosen to represent against Harvard. Those three were Polanco, Tatro, and Snyder, and while they had gone over their notes again and again, they were still nervous.
Now, up on the prison’s stage, they battled it out. Rows of their incarcerated fellows filled the rest of the hall, an audience on the edge of its seat. When Harvard made their closing argument, it was up to the BPI team to drive theirs home.
Wall Street Journal
They argued that schools that accepted undocumented children, often termed “dropout factories,” were underfunded, overcrowded, and underperforming. If undocumented kids were denied access to public school, private institutions and nonprofits would swoop in, giving them a much better shot at education and at building the American dream.
Tampa Bay Times
Then, time was up. Both teams sat down while the judges stepped away to deliberate, and after what seemed like forever, they came back to the microphone to reveal the results.
The BPI inmates won! The ENYCF audience went wild. Worldwide press picked the story up and clamored for interviews with the Bard students behind bars who’d trounced Harvard. “We have been graced with opportunity,” Polanco told journalists. “They make us believe in ourselves.”
The Harvard team was gracious in their loss. “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to,” reads a post on their official debate team Facebook page. A 20-year-old team member, Anais Carell, also noted how impressed she was, saying that “they caught us off guard”.
Harvard College Debating Union
So, where is the team now? Polanco and Tatro are both out of prison; Polanco works in finance, and Tatro works as a government affairs and advancement officer for the BPI. Snyder is still incarcerated, but has earned a master’s degree and plans to work in public health upon his release.
The cherry on top of this fantastic sundae? Warner Bros. bought the rights to the debate team’s story, and is developing a movie about them. No word on when it’s set to premiere…but we can’t wait to see it.
And while there’s no word that the studio is looking for another story about the incarcerated, executives should look into the rights to Richard Phillips’ story. He spent 46 years locked up after being framed — and he recently got revenge in an unforgettable way.
MLive / YouTube
On a cold winter day in 1979, a friend burst into Richard Phillips’ jail cell with news. The man who had framed Phillips for murder had been spotted eating in the prison’s chow hall, he was totally defenseless, and he was on the move.
Phillips strode across the courtyard of the Michigan prison with a steely gaze in his eye and real steel hidden under his sleeve. It had been seven years since he was incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was ready to get revenge.
Phillips positioned himself outside the chow hall, waiting. As his target came into view, he fell in a few paces behind the man. In just a few moments, they’d turn the corner to a blind spot the guards couldn’t see, and Phillips would strike for all the years he’d lost.
Brittany Greeson / CNN
How did he ever get here? Convinced that he was meting out justice, Phillips stared down Fred Mitchell, weaving through the crowded hall ahead of him, and thought back over the years to when this cruel nightmare began.
It had been a day like any other back in 1972. Phillips had spent the day at the Michigan State Fair with his two toddlers, Rita and Richard Jr., riding all the rides and laughing in the photo booth together.
Brittany Greeson / CNN
That night, however, he went out again and was detained by the police. He was wanted as a suspect of armed robbery alongside Richard “Dago” Palombo and Fred Mitchell, a man witnesses thought looked similar to Phillips.
Phillips was in deep trouble. He was friends with both of the other suspects, and he didn’t have much of an alibi. When it came time for the jury to deliberate between whether Phillips or Mitchell had been at the crime scene, they believed it’d been Phillips.
Michigan Department of Corrections
Sentenced to seven years in jail, Phillips hoped for an appeal, but things just got worse. He was still incarcerated in winter 1972, when the body of Gregory Harris, who’d been missing since spring 1971, was found in a field.
Days after the body’s discovery, Fred Mitchell was arrested on another armed robbery charge — and, hoping to lighten his sentence, told police he had information about Harris’s killers. He said Palombo and Phillips had done it.
Temple University Archives
There was no physical evidence. There were no other witnesses. The word of one man who wanted a plea deal was enough for the authorities. They called Phillips and Palombo into court, and after deliberating for just four hours, convicted them both of first-degree murder.
Phillips’s seven-year sentence had turned into a life sentence. He was stunned: at the time the murder had taken place, he didn’t even know Palombo. But that made no difference — his lawyer hadn’t let him take the witness stand to speak at the trial.
As he handed down Phillips’s new sentence, the judge asked if he had any words for the victims. “Not necessarily, Your Honor, except for the fact that I was not guilty…so all I can do is just…wait until something develops in my favor,” he said.
Back behind bars, Phillips buckled down on his resolve to wait it out. He watched as men around him succumbed to the horrors of life on the inside. One man drank shoe glue to permanently avoid rapists. Another threw himself off a balcony, haunted by the things he’d done.
Phillips took a job at the prison license plate factory and began saving up. He wrote poetry, songs, and bought a watercolor paint set, teaching himself to paint to ease his troubles while the days and years dragged on.
Matthew Gannon / CNN
It wasn’t enough to keep an innocent man’s spirits up, though. Phillips hit a low point. He hadn’t seen his children in years, after asking his wife not to bring them to the facility for their own protection.
When Mitchell appeared in the chow hall, Phillips was ready to avenge his lost freedom, but something itched the back of his mind. They say you’re a murderer; if you kill Mitchell, they’ll be right, he thought. Then you’ll never have a chance to get out.
Behind the Badge
Years later, Phillips’s appeal sat on the desk of Judge Helen E. Brown. She was stunned while reading it, realizing Palombo and Phillips had been convicted on Fred Mitchell’s testimony alone — a man who she wasn’t sure was innocent himself.
Brittany Greeson / CNN
Then, in Palombo’s own appeal hearing, he made a stunning statement. Seemingly having an urge to do the right thing, he told how, back in June 1971, Fred Mitchell had committed George Harris’s murder — alone and with no warning, in front of Palombo’s eyes.
The officials at Palombo’s hearing were confused. Palombo’s statement hadn’t mentioned Richard Phillips at all. “I didn’t meet Phillips until July 4th, 1971,” Palombo said. July 4th was eight days after the murder; Phillips was innocent.
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
With the help of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Palombo and his attorney pushed to get Phillips a new hearing, and they were successful. On March 28, 2018, 45 years later, prosecutor Kym Worthy officially exonerated Phillips, once and for all. “Justice is indeed being done today,” she said.
By that time, Phillips had painted over 400 paintings while in prison, and after the news broke of his freedom victory, collectors across the world clamored to buy them. He sold many of the paintings for thousands of dollars apiece.
Richard Phillips Art Gallery
In addition, Phillips was awarded a settlement of $1.5 million for his wrongful conviction. He has reached out to his children, and is ready to move forward, beginning the first chapter of the best revenge: a life well lived.
After spending 45 years on the inside, Phillips saw what incarceration could drive men to do. He had no problem believing the horrors one of America’s most infamous prison drove three inmates to.
Elaine Cromie / The Detroit News
Every summer, dozens of triathletes undertake a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco Bay. While this race is simply meant for sport, some use it as evidence supporting the most successful prison break in history.
Jim Heath / Triathlon World
There was some serious chatter in the Alcatraz prison yard during the early months of 1962. Most inmates were content to quietly pass the time until their release, but three prisoners were desperate to get out. Luckily, they had a plan.
The Malpaso Company
John Morris met brothers Clarence and John Anglin during a previous prison stint in Atlanta; it seemed like providence when the three bank robbers were assigned to adjacent cells on The Rock. They agreed to smuggle a few special items out of the mess hall.
Spoons. On their own, these utensils wouldn’t do much good for tunneling. But a bit of sharpening turned them into handy picks that could chip away at the concrete walls. The cons’ plan would be slow, though that’s just how they wanted it.
Michael Short / The San Francisco Chronicle
They heard about the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz” that erupted back in 1946, when a group of prisoners tried to take the jail by force. Once the guards overpowered them, this doomed attempt got everyone involved shot, executed, or locked up for life.
TrailersPlaygroundHD / YouTube
Morris and the Anglins agreed that a shootout would be a one-way ticket to the grave. If their schemes went off without a hitch, the trio would make it off the island before anybody realized they were gone.
Hunched under their cell sinks, the conspirators worked to widen ventilation ducts into tunnels. Prisoners were allowed to play music at certain hours of the day, so Morris blasted his accordion to cover up the excavation noise.
The dig was slow going, but it gave the trio time to perfect the other parts of their plan. They collected supplies from various blocks of the prison, including a bag of hair trimmings from the barber.
Bud Marshall / Pioneer Press
Each lock was a key ingredient for the most ingenious feature of their escape. Morris and the Anglins constructed papier-mâché models of their own heads, complete with real human hair. Hopefully, these sculptures would buy them a few more hours.
Liz Hafalia / The San Francisco Chronicle
On the night of June 11, the convicts made their move. They crawled through their tunnels, snuck through a little-used service corridor, and broke through a ventilation shaft in the roof. However, the metal grill made a loud clang when they pushed it aside.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
But the guards made nothing of it! All the prisoners appeared to be in their beds, thanks to the dummy heads that Morris and the Anglins had constructed! It wasn’t until the next morning that the guards discovered the ruse.
Alcatraz officials were in a frenzy as they retraced the escapees’ route. A prison who helped engineer the operation confessed that Morris and the Anglin brothers constructed a raft out of raincoats and were currently making their way to nearby Angel Island.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
A comprehensive search of the bay turned up a floating paddle, a tattered homemade life jacket, and fragments of the raft. Police deduced that the prison breakers must have drowned during the rough voyage. They assured the public not to worry.
Alcatraz, now a museum, continues to buy into that narrative. Tour guides retell the stages of the complex escape while maintaining that none of the three criminals ever made it back to the mainland. Not everyone is so sure, however.
John and Clarence Anglin’s family received a number of postcards over the years, purportedly from the fugitives. They could have been pranks, except the trend kept up. Their mother received an anonymous bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day for the rest of her life!
Then there were the alleged sightings. An old pal of Morris claimed he encountered him in Maryland. Meanwhile, a family friend of the Anglins believed he spotted them during a vacation to Brazil. A photo of two men in South American resembling the brothers supported his story.
In fact, the FBI has followed these leads, investigating whether it was possible that the escape was successful. They’ve also released time-lapsed mugshots to the public to aid in their search, but to no avail. It seemed like a cold case until 2013.
A letter arrived at FBI headquarters, signed by one John Anglin. It spelled out the supposed truth of their post-prison lives, stating that all three fugitives lived until old age. John, real or fake, claimed to be the last living member, and he included a shocking request.
CBS San Francisco
He said that he had cancer and was willing to reenter the prison system for a year in exchange for medical treatment! FBI agents asked themselves if such a message was too good to be true.
Heidi de Marco / California Healthline
After handwriting analysts failed to establish a solid link between Anglin’s handwriting and this letter, the FBI concluded that the author was likely not authentic. On the other hand, they couldn’t disprove his identity outright.
Graphology Consulting Group
That letter could be the last possible piece of evidence in the famed escape case. We may never truly know if the convicts made it off of Alcatraz alive. The alleged Anglin letter, however, did eerily foreshadow a sinister bargain that many sick people are taking around the world.
Toshio Takata struggled to make ends meet. After moving into a halfway house, it got to the point where the 62-year-old had trouble buying supplies for his beloved art projects. This old dog would have to learn some new tricks if he wanted to survive.
Traditionally speaking, the Japanese treat their elders quite well. Old-fashioned standards oblige younger people to not only care for their parents and grandparents, but to treat them with the utmost respect.
In the modern age, however, more and more senior citizens like Toshio are feeling left behind. His family has more or less dissolved, and he’s grown estranged from his brothers, two ex-wives, and three children. Toshio only has himself.
Across the country, older Japanese citizens are unable to find a support system. There’s just so many of them. Over a third of the national population is now 60 or older, and the senior citizens have outnumbered the children for years.
With the number of seniors only increasing, Toshio saw some of his contemporaries lose just about everything. Even with pensions and benefits, they couldn’t afford food and housing. Some were even put out on the street. But Toshio found a solution.
Nowadays, Toshio lives comfortably. He’s got three square meals a day, plenty of staff on hand to provide for his every need, and plenty of similarly aged friends to spend time with. It all started with a bicycle.
This bicycle didn’t belong to him. Toshio found it parked on a street corner in Hiroshima, and he just rode off with it. But this was no mere joy ride; Toshio knew exactly where he was headed.
Flickr / Nicolas Raddatz
He rode to the nearest police station. Approaching the front desk, the old man calmly informed the authorities that he stole the bicycle. With no other choice, the police cuffed the seemingly harmless senior and brought him in.
The court sentenced him to one year in prison for petty theft. Did Toshio have an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment? Had he been hit with a wave of remorse once he hopped on the bike?
Nope. The theft, the arrest, the sentence — it had all been part of his plan. With no criminal history, in the Japanese prison system, he enjoyed the stability behind bars.
Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg
So he served his year worry free for the most part. Then, once he got out, something peculiar happened: Toshio threatened women in the park with a knife.
He now claims that he didn’t mean any harm, he simply wanted the police to lock him up once again — this time for a longer period of time. A single year wouldn’t cut it anymore.
Now 69-years-old, Toshio wakes up in a cell every morning, but he does so with a purpose. He has a place where he belongs and all the time in the world to work on his art. Strangely enough, he’s not the only one to enjoy life behind bars.
In a trend that no social scientist saw coming, one in five Japanese inmates is 60 years or older. And these aren’t hardened criminals either.
The police nab nearly all these gray-haired cons for minor offenses. Many shoplift from stores, either as a means to feed themselves for free or to get caught on purpose. With Japan’s relatively severe penalties for theft, they all end up incarcerated.
This is no short-term solution for seniors, either. Roughly a quarter of them commit another offense soon after their release, leading to an even longer sentence. But why is prison such an attractive place for them to spend their golden years?
Like Toshio, most older inmates will claim economic reasons. Besides living for free behind bars, they can still continue to collect their pensions. They’ll have some nice savings once free. However, this may not tell the whole story.
According to Kanichi Yamada, director of a rehabilitation center, elderly inmates’ real motivation may be loneliness. He theorizes that they usually have lost their loved ones and fail to rediscover their places in mainstream society.
Regardless of why Japanese seniors are seeking out cells, jails have drastically evolved to accommodate them. Facilities and events have become more accessible to older demographics, and specialized guards have joined to help care for these prisoners.
For now, prison life remains more comfortable than freedom for Toshio and his ilk. They feel certain that there’s nothing for them outside the jail walls. However, a large segment of senior inmates do have one key difference from Toshio.
Bloomberg / Shiho Fukada
An increasing number of them are women! Although women across the board are statistically less likely to commit a crime than men, female seniors who live alone are particularly affected by poverty and isolation.
The Seattle Times
Prison offers struggling women a way to escape their burdens and anxiety, though none of them process their strange path the same way. While some freed inmates admit they feel guilty, others look back on their incarceration with nostalgia.
With the population of senior citizens on the rise, Japan will have to find a more efficient way to care for them. If they do not enact radical reforms, the Japanese will find themselves in a prison of their own making. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation drives seniors to act out all over the globe.
As he walked across the Redding, California, soil for the first time, Kevin Burns’ heart filled with anticipation. He thought about new friends, career prospects, romantic possibilities. But it was his elderly neighbor that won most of his attention.
YouTube / KBurns
Though her house seemed like it could hold a full family, 68-year-old Ruth Ratliff lived next to Kevin all by herself. Odder still, she seemed to never spend any time inside the house. She was always in her parked car, eating.
YouTube / KBurns
It didn’t take long for Kevin to puzzle out the reason why: Ruth lived inside her car. She stocked up on all the necessary supplies and set up a bed of sorts in the backseat. She even kept her small dog in there with her.
YouTube / KBurns
But at the same time, Ruth’s car was totally broken down. Not only could she not drive anywhere, but she also couldn’t even turn on the heat during cold nights. Concerned, Kevin felt obliged to step in. Why didn’t she just move back into her house?
YouTube / KBurns
For a long time, Ruth remained coy about why she avoided her home like the plague. Kevin’s repeated questioning eventually brought the truth to light: “My home has become a dump,” Ruth admitted, “because my best friend died, and I lost my mind.”
YouTube / KBurns
Ruth then made a request of Kevin: could she go inside her home and find a misplaced photo of her parents? She feared she would forget what they looked like. Kevin accepted the quest. opened the house’s, front door, and…walked into an absolute nightmare.
YouTube / KBurns
“My home has become a dump” didn’t do justice to the abysmal state of Ruth’s house. While it clearly was a nice residence years ago, it was now unlivable. A rancid odor made it hard to breathe, and trash and human waste covered the floor of every room.
It became evident that Ruth was a hoarder, incapable of parting with any kind of object. Without some outside help, Kevin realized that Ruth could never return to a normal life. Just as he was about to give up and duck out for fresh air, a strange detail caught his eye.
A makeshift shelf leaned against one wall, and it looked like there was an entire room behind it. Was there a chance that this hidden room escaped the noxious effects of Ruth’s hoarding? Kevin slid the shelf over and entered the black space.
Curiously, as Kevin’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw what looked like a child’s bedroom. He peered at some old photographs taped to the wall. There was no sign of Ruth’s parents, but he did see a photo of some kids that looked like Ruth.
Kevin was about to give up when he spotted the corner of a photo sticking out from the cabinet — it was just the one Ruth asked for! He headed for the door to share the good news until he came across the biggest problem of all.
Gazing up at the ceiling, Kevin noticed many of the rooms were overrun with black mold. While trash could be cleaned up, this poisonous fungus made the house uninhabitable. There was so much of it, Kevin wondered if it could spread to other houses.
Ruth was heartbroken to hear about the decay of her once-beloved home, though she at least agreed to call the fire department. They soon arrived with a truckload of equipment. As it turns out, however, they were not aiming to save the house.
The fire chief explained that the black mold presented a toxic risk that they needed to wipe out immediately. As they set up a perimeter of flames around the condemned house, Kevin held Ruth’s hand and laid out a plan for the future.
Together, the neighbors watched Ruth’s house go up in flames. Although he knew it was for the best, Kevin felt her pain at all the memories burning inside of it. All the evidence of Ruth’s past was gone. Only the woman herself could reveal the truth now — if she wanted to.
Before he could delve into the mysteries of the strange photographs and the hidden room, however, Kevin needed to make accommodations for his aggrieved neighbor. He lacked the money to put her up in his own place, and so he set up a GoFundMe page.
YouTube / KBurns
Amazingly, the community rallied around Ruth, and a local non-profit reached out to Kevin. They ran a nursing home for the elderly, where Ruth could have a real roof over her head for the first time in years. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take in Ruth’s chihuahua.
But Kevin took care of that. He adopted the small dog, and the two of them visited Ruth each week. Over time, Ruth settled back into a regular enough life to regain her mental stability. She began to share the secrets that she was so desperate to hide from the world.
Over a cup of coffee, Kevin finally learned the truth behind the secret bedroom: It didn’t belong to a son or daughter, as Ruth never had kids. It was her own childhood bedroom! After her parents and husband passed away, leaving Ruth alone, she sealed it up. She couldn’t bear to face all the memories and dreams it represented.
Ruth could never go back to her old life; that much was clear. But in her new home, she rediscovered comforts and friendships that she would have forsaken if she stayed alone in her car. Thanks to Kevin’s foray into her house, Ruth’s hopes for the future are burning bright.