Illinois prison officials quashed First Amendment rights, lawsuit says

Katrina Burlet speaks at a press conference with small crowd of supporters behind her

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Katrina Burlet, former volunteer teacher of a debate class in Stateville prison, speaks about her lawsuit against Illinois prison officials over the class’s cancellation

The Illinois Department of Corrections was sued on Tuesday over its controversial decision to abruptly halt a debate program at Stateville Correctional Center, weeks after the class debated the state parole laws before an audience that included 18 legislators and other state officials.

The suit, brought by the volunteer coach of the program, Katrina Burlet, contends IDOC officials “did not want to afford Ms. Burlet’s class a platform to communicate with Illinois legislators about correctional matters.” The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

After the April cancellation, Burlet was banned as both a volunteer and visitor from all state prison facilities, including a youth facility where she coached a different debate team. The suit contends IDOC director John Baldwin and assistant director Gladyse Taylor violated Burlet’s First Amendment rights, and asks a federal judge in Chicago to reinstate Burlet’s program.

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The Illinois Department of Corrections has never publicly explained the decision, but prisoners who took part in the program class believe officials were uncomfortable that they had gained a direct audience in state legislators on a proposal to change the 1978 law that abolished the opportunity for most state prisoners to be released through parole. Injustice Watch reported in May that Burlet had clashed frequently with corrections officials over prison procedures, but the officials had approved the event and the subject matter.

Courts generally permit corrections officials wide discretion in determining which volunteers and visitors are allowed into its facilities, based on security concerns. Burlet’s attorney, Liz Mazur, said at a press conference Tuesday to announce the lawsuit that prisons can only restrict free speech “as long as there’s a legitimate penological purpose.”

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“The First Amendment applies in prison walls,” said Mazur, the legal director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “We’re alleging the real purpose [of the cancellation] is about the content of the speech.”

At the conference, Burlet and her supporters described the positive outcomes of prisoners learning communication and persuasion skills, which she said included forums for inmates and staff to discuss prison policy changes, and the reduced use of violence.

Michael Simmons, a prisoner who was in the debate class, wrote in a statement read at the press conference that the program’s cancellation did not take away the message the class had sent through their debate.

“Our voices have served as a reminder that all lives, even ours, are terrible things to waste,” Simmons wrote.