After prisoners debate parole before Illinois lawmakers, state halts class

Last month, Illinois Department of Corrections officials abruptly suspended a popular debate class for inmates at Stateville Correctional Center that had brought in an audience legislators and state officials. Corrections officials offered no explanation of the decision to Injustice Watch.

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

The entrance to Stateville Correctional Facility, near Joliet

Last month, Illinois Department of Corrections officials abruptly suspended a popular debate class for inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, roughly one month after the participants in the class debated the state’s parole laws for an audience of state officials, including 18 legislators, and a handful of journalists and other members of the public.

Prison officials decided to suspend the program after the debate. The decision was not made public until after WGN-TV aired a laudatory segment on the class run by a volunteer, Katrina Burlet. Injustice Watch reporters had attended the debate, and were notified of its suspension from an inmate as ripples of shock went up among prisoners at Stateville.

Burlet said she has been suspended from entering Illinois prison facilities.

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Corrections officials offered no explanation to Injustice Watch. Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said in an emailed statement that the department “appreciates the time Ms. Burlet dedicated to the program, but has chosen to end the relationship.” The statement also said the department is aware that the program was “well-received,” has “positive attributes,” and that it is currently under review.

Hess did not respond to requests to elaborate further on ending the relationship with Burlet or putting the program under review. Nor would eight other officials explain further. Five officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Stateville Correctional Center did not respond to requests for comment regarding the stalled program. One official declined to comment, and two who responded to requests for comment were not granted permission by the department to talk further to Injustice Watch reporters.

Inmates who participated in the class said they believe corrections officials were uncomfortable that prisoners had spoken so directly to state legislators about the 1978 law that ended the possibility of parole for Illinois inmates.

Eugene Ross, a debate class participant, wrote in an affidavit that the class was being cancelled because he and his teammates were “able to articulate themselves in a way that prompted legislators to want to consider the issue.”

One state representative who attended the debate, Rita Mayfield (D – Waukegan) was intrigued by the issue and later returned and met with the class as she conducts research in the hopes of introducing a bill in January to bring back parole to Illinois. Mayfield said in an interview that she is reviewing other states’ parole systems and meeting with various groups over the issue.

Ross, the prisoner, said in his affidavit that Department of Corrections assistant director Gladyse Taylor visited the class after the debate and was “threatening” that members in the class could be transferred and displaced to other prison facilities. A teacher of another educational program at the prison also emailed an assistant warden at the Stateville facility after the program was put under review, stating that he heard inmates from the class may be transferred.

Burlet said she heard such rumors initially but confirmed later the class members were not threatened. Taylor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Burlet and two class members separately told Injustice Watch that during Taylor’s visit to the class, the assistant director told the inmates she could shut down the program anytime because it was not “evidence-based,” meaning it could not be proven that the debate program helped reduce the chances that former prisoners would engage in crimes following their release.

Most class members are serving lengthy or lifetime sentences at Stateville, making the issue difficult to prove. The program was discontinued two days after Taylor’s visit. Burlet said Taylor repeated her reasoning about recidivism in a meeting the pair had after the suspension was announced.

Prison staff received an email April 5 from Warden Walter Nicholson stating, “We will not be conducting another debate program until such time that we complete the analysis of Statesville’ core program offerings and program space utility.” In the email, which Injustice Watch obtained through a public records request, Nicholson wrote,“Future elective programming will be added as the need and space dictates.”

Nicholson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The program had its first class meeting in early October 2017, with participants hand-picked by the facility’s volunteer coordinator, Stateville Chaplain George Adamson, according to Burlet, who had already been a volunteer teaching a class in an Illinois juvenile detention facility.

She said Adamson suggested the class debate criminal justice-related topics that would culminate in a debate for a public audience to showcase its work. The day of the first class meeting, Burlet emailed Adamson with two suggestions for a debate topic that the class came up with, including one about parole. Adamson responded with approval, saying the suggestions were “great topics.”

Hess declined to grant Injustice Watch permission to interview Adamson, who as chaplain works for the prison.

Before the program was halted, emails obtained by Injustice Watch show, Stateville officials clashed with Burlet over everything from how legislators would be invited to whether the event could be videotaped for the public, or other lawmakers who did not attend in person, to later view.

Michael Lane, the Department of Corrections’s chief of intergovernmental relations, who coordinates the entry of government officials to the prisons, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.