Stalled Stateville prison debate class members demand program’s return

Letter delivery

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Volunteer debate class teacher Katrina Burlet (left), prison newsletter Stateville Speaks co-founder Bill Ryan (center), and Michael Covington, an uncle of debate class participant Eugene Ross, on their way to deliver a letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office at the James R. Thompson Center.

(Updated at 9:50 a.m. and 12:12 p.m. May 31 to reflect information about one inmate’s whereabouts)

Supporters of the debate class at the Stateville Correctional Center, a program correction department officials abruptly suspended last month, delivered a letter Wednesday to Governor Bruce Rauner’s office demanding the program’s reinstatement and an executive order granting legislators access to prison facilities.

Shortly after a press conference was held over the suspension of the popular program, one of the class participants was removed from his cell at Stateville, along with his belongings, by about 10 correctional officers and Randy Pfister, Illinois Department of Corrections’s deputy director for the northern district, according to the inmate’s sister.

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It is unclear at the time where the prisoner, Eugene Ross, was taken or why. His sister, Fallan Covington, said Ross had been moved to solitary confinement, but that he was returned to his cell on Thursday. Ross had called his sister at the time they usually speak, and she happened to be at the press conference. His sister alerted the speakers that Ross was on the phone, and he spoke to the room briefly.

According to his sister the prison facility ended the call prematurely.

Corrections department officials on Wednesday did not answer questions about Ross’s removal in a lengthy statement they released following the press conference.

The debate program, which included prisoners at the maximum security facility, was suspended in April weeks after the class held a public debate on the 1978 state law that eliminated the possibility of parole, before an audience of state legislators as well as a handful of members of the public and journalists.

Injustice Watch reported Tuesday that the debate program was halted abruptly last month, and its instructor banned from the state’s prisons, afterward. The program’s instructor, volunteer Katrina Burlet, spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the state government building in Chicago to call for her program’s reinstatement and for her to be allowed back into Department of Corrections facilities.

Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold deferred comment to the Department of Corrections.

The Department of Corrections has not publicly explained its decision, but Burlet and her class members have said that the department’s assistant director Gladyse Taylor told them the program was not “evidence-based,” meaning it could not be proven to have an effect on the participants’ recidivism rates. The class members are all serving lifetime or long sentences.

Responding in a statement to the inmates’ letter, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess wrote in the department statement that “there is an open invitation for all legislators who wish to visit our facilities.” Hess said that the class was cancelled after a collective decision by the department’s executive staff.

Hess also called “fabricated” a claim by inmates that class members were threatened during a surprise visit.

Burlet and the students also have said they believe corrections officials did not want to allow inmates to directly speak with state legislators about criminal justice policy, particularly the laws that apply to their incarceration.

The students “have gained real traction in their fight for parole,” Burlet said Wednesday. State Rep. Rita Mayfield (D – Waukegan) expressed interest after watching the debate in introducing a bill to restore parole and returned to Stateville to meet with the class as she researches the issue.

The program’s discontinuation has spread concern among other volunteer prison instructors that they, too, will not be allowed to provide educational programs in Illinois maximum security facilities.

Lucy Cane, who has taught humanities classes at Stateville through the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project, said at the press conference that she was concerned with the reasoning the Department of Corrections used to halt the class, and its “outrageous silencing of the debate team.”

Cane said the Department of Corrections has not threatened to end her program, but that she fears an evidence-based standard could become a common justification for ending programs in the prison. She said long-term inmates, like the debate class participants, are the first ones left out of educational opportunities when programming is cut.

“Often education in prison is approached not as a general right, the right we all have to learn and express ourselves, but rather as merely a means to reduce recidivism or facilitate re-entry,” Cane said.

Two formerly incarcerated men, Earl Walker and Ken Berry, also spoke in support of the program and said the classes they took while in Illinois prisons contributed to their success in society. After the press conference, Burlet and dozens of supporters made their way to the Governor’s office to deliver a letter of demands, signed by the 13 members of the debate class.

The letter called on Rauner to get personally involved with the debate program’s cancellation by overturning the Department of Corrections decision to ban Burlet, reinstating the class, and allowing legislators access to state prisons.

“One successful debate got the class cancelled and got a phenomenal teacher banned from IDOC,” the letter states. “Why? Because a single IDOC official felt overshadowed and wants to not only silence our voices but control what issues the General Assembly considers.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Fallan Covington’s first name.