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Lawsuit Demands Return Of Prison Debate Program

Illinois Department of Corrections officials ended Stateville prison's debate program because officials did not like the prisoners being in close contact with, and thus having an influence on, state legislators. On Tuesday, lawyers with Uptown People's Law Center will file a lawsuit on behalf of Katrina Burlet, who headed this successful program, to get the program reinstated.

From approximately October 2017 to April 24, 2018, plaintiff Burlet taught a debate class for prisoners at Stateville, a maximum security prison for adult men operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections. There were 14 students in the program, all with very lengthy prison sentences.

Program participants decided to debate how Illinois might implement a parole system. Believing that Illinois should provide opportunities for parole for prisoners with long and/or life sentences, they prepared draft legislation that would restore a system of parole in Illinois.

IDOC officials approved their request to have a public debate, and it was attended by approximately 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly. A number of journalists, IDOC officials, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and other members of the public also attended.

The debate was followed by "Q & A" and then "meet and greet" sessions, during which legislators asked questions and engaged with the debaters in ways showing they were giving serious consideration to the policies being proposed.

Less than two weeks later, defendant Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of IDOC, arrived unannounced at a regularly-scheduled debate class and expressed her dissatisfaction about the debate. She informed the class that she did not approve of the class's communication with legislators, as it would get in the way of IDOC's pursuit of its own legislative agenda. Taylor also said it would be detrimental to her personal agenda if legislators continued to pay attention to the class's message about parole, and she was not going to allow that to happen. Taylor and other as-yet-unidentified government officials then canceled the debate program, and banned Burlet from all IDOC facilities.

The lawsuit seeks to reinstate the debate program, and seeks damages for defamatory remarks IDOC director John Baldwin made about Ms. Burlet.

"This is absolutely a First Amendment issue," said Liz Mazur, legal director of Uptown People's Law Center, who is bringing the lawsuit. "Prisoners have a right to freedom of speech under the Constitution. This program was canceled because legislators took prisoners seriously, and IDOC retaliated against Ms. Burlet because she helped make the prisoners voices heard by the legislators and the public."

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See also:

"In April, WGN Investigates took viewers inside Stateville Prison near Joliet to introduce them to debate coach Katrina Burlet.

The 25-year-old Wheaton College alum worked with 13 men serving life on murder charges. As part of the club, they argued both sides of parole and whether men like them deserve second chances.

"Back there in the cell house, it's like a dungeon. And there's a lot of hopelessness and so people don't necessarily want to talk about the time they have," inmate Michael Simmons said at the time. "So when you get a chance to discuss the possibility of parole coming back . . . it just brings hope to the darkness that surrounds these cellhouses."

The program cost the Illinois Department of Corrections almost nothing. It was run by an eager volunteer who has now been banned from state facilities without much of an explanation. So why was it shut down just six days after we broadcast a story about it?

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on August 27, 2018


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