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Illinois Prisoners Speak Out—and Then Lose a Cherished Debate Program

Debate coach Katrina Burlet says she was banned from state’s prisons after prisoners in her program argued for parole.

Katrina Burlet with her class.Photo courtesy of WGN Chicago.

Prisoners are urging the governor of Illinois to reinstate a debate program at Stateville Correctional Center that the Illinois Department of Corrections abruptly shut down on April 25.

The program, the Justice Debate League, was suspended just weeks after 18 Illinois state legislators attended a public debate class at Stateville on March 21. During that session, prisoners serving life sentences without parole argued for the return of discretionary parole in Illinois, one of 16 states that offer no possibility of earned parole for prisoners. The prisoners also introduced legislation they wrote on the issue to lawmakers at the debate.

Without explanation, the IDOC canceled my program and banned me from all carceral facilities in the state,” Katrina Burlet, director of the Justice Debate League, told The Appeal. Burlet, 25, founded the nonprofit in October 2017, joining a handful of prison debate programs around the country. Apart from Stateville, her program also operated at the Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile detention facility in Warrenville.

“I am no longer able to coach anyone in debate, though my programs were both very popular and developed skills necessary for operating effectively in society: clear communication, maintaining emotional control in the midst of disagreements, and learning to consider situations from other people’s perspectives,” she said.

After graduating from Illinois’s Wheaton College with a degree in political science, Burlet began coaching college and high school debate teams but yearned to extend her reach. “I thought how much more impactful it would be for people to receive debate training who might not have access to other education,” said Burlet, who volunteered her time to establish the program. “Also, there were many competitive debates on the criminal justice system and no one incarcerated was involved, so it felt like a natural fit to start training people behind bars in competitive debate.”

Burlet said she had coordinated a video-recorded debate at the Youth Center in Warrenville on April 26 so the public could see the program in action, but when she showed up, she was barred from entering. She learned then that the program had been officially shut down the previous day. “After I was banned, I reached out asking to talk about what happened and everyone in the department has been prohibited from speaking to me,” Burlet said. “So there are no answers, there’s no explanation.”

Thirteen prisoners at the Stateville Correctional Center wrote a letter dated May 17 to Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, urging his office to intervene in reinstating the program. “We are human beings whom society has demonized, dehumanized, discounted, and warehoused for decades in Illinois prisons,” they wrote. “In the face of that, though, we each believed in, and worked to rehabilitate ourselves until others began to believe in us as well.”

They noted that they were selected to participate in the program because of their academic records and achievements, and that many of them are serving life sentences for crimes committed as adolescents or young adults. “We got a tremendous amount from this class,” the prisoners wrote. Not only did we learn how to debate … but several of us were able to use this class to fulfill requirements necessary to obtain our bachelor’s degrees.” The debate class boosted their confidence, they wrote, inspired them, and provided hope.

“I don’t think the program should be cancelled at all,” Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), who attended the debate, told WGN Chicago. “I think this is one of the most positive programs to come out of DOC since I’ve been here.”

Rachel Bold, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, declined to discuss the prisoners’ letter and directed inquiries to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Calls to Mayfield and another lawmaker who attended the debate were not returned by press time.

During the debate, Joseph Dole, a prisoner serving time for murder, argued in favor of establishing a parole system in Illinois. “Dehumanization prevents prosecutors from being able to view people convicted of crimes as human, capable of change, and deserving of a second chance,” Dole said. He explained that prior to being incarcerated, he obtained a high school diploma through night school. Since being sent to prison, Dole won a 2017 Columbia University writing contest and had his work published in academic journals, which Dole cited as proof that incarcerated people are capable of change. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In 1978, Illinois banned discretionary parole, which grants parole based on individual decisions by a parole board. The state’s parole system was eliminated in favor of mandatory supervision, which is only offered in felony cases and doesn’t provide paths to early release.

“We know one of the drivers of mass incarceration is the length of sentence. It’s not just the number of people going into prisons each year; it’s also how many people are coming out of prison,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, an independent watchdog of correctional facilities in Illinois. Without parole, fewer people are coming out. “That ignores the potential for human redemption,” she said. “People change and grow. They should have the opportunity to go in front of a prisoner review board and make their case to be considered for release. If we really believe in rehabilitation as a stated goal of our system, how can we not re-evaluate people over time?”

Illinois’s lack of a parole system has contributed to making its prison system one of the most crowded in the United States. As of June 2016, 44,817 individuals were incarcerated in Illinois facilities approved to hold 32,095 people. The Illinois prison system was 150.4 percent over capacity at the end of 2014, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s more crowded than any other state in the nation, though Illinois’s prison population has slightly decreased since then.

Illinois Department of Corrections still has not provided an explanation for terminating the debate program. Burlet’s class members have said that the department’s assistant director, Gladyse Taylor, canceled a follow-up meeting with a state legislator, and told the class the program was not “evidence-based,” meaning it had not been shown to reduce recidivism.

The Department of Corrections wrote in an email to The Appeal, “The Department’s decision to end its relationship with Ms. Katrina Burlet was made collectively, by IDOC’s executive staff. Illinois Administrative Code (tit. 20, pt. 435.70) gives the Department the authority to terminate volunteers at any time.”