Illinois prison officials shuttered debate program; now, inmates sue that action

A group of inmates who participated in the now-defunct debate team at a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois, filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday contending officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections violated their constitutional right to free speech.

The five former team members, all incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, brought the suit roughly a year after corrections officials abruptly suspended the popular prison program. Weeks before the class was halted, the 14-member team debated how best to bring parole back to the state before several Illinois legislators, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and a handful of journalists and members of the public.

One of the legislators in attendance, Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan) has since filed a bill proposing to bring back for many offenders the chance for parole, which was largely eliminated by a 1978 state law. A separate bill signed into law earlier this year created incremental parole opportunities for young offenders.

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Mayfield later returned to the prison and met with the debaters to discuss parole.

After the class was cancelled, the team’s instructor, Katrina Burlet, was banned from entering Illinois Department of Corrections facilities.

The suit states that corrections assistant director Gladyse Taylor became unhappy with the communication between legislators and the debate team about parole, and stated that the conversations were interfering with the corrections department’s legislative agenda. Taylor then threatened members of the debate team, according to the lawsuit, stating she better not see her name in any lawsuits and indicating that the inmates could be moved to a facility further from their families.

After the class was cancelled, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said claims that Taylor had threatened the class were “fabricated.”

“These men were exercising their right to freedom of speech,” the inmate’s attorney, Brad Thomson, said in a press release Wednesday. “The fact that they were using their Constitutional right to effectively advocate for parole to legislators angered certain IDOC officials. When state actors use their power to retaliate and shut down speech because it differs from their personal political agenda, it is an abuse of their authority and a violation of the Constitution.”

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 a debate class participant, on their way to deliver the debate class letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office at the James R. Thompson Center.

Last year, members of the debate class sent a letter to then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, noting many of the issues outlined in the lawsuit, and demanded that the class be reinstated.

The lawsuit states that several inmates who participated in the debate class faced further retaliation, including unwarranted disciplinary tickets and placement in solitary confinement, barriers to entry in educational programs, and interference with phone access.

The inmates, Eugene Ross, Benard McKinley, Lester Dobby, Joseph Dole and Raul Dorado, are represented by Thomson and Michael Deutsch from the People’s Law Office, and attorney Joshua Herman. In the lawsuit, the inmates are asking for reinstatement of  the class.

A spokeswoman from the Illinois Department of Corrections said they cannot comment on pending legislation.

This article has been updated to include a comment from the Illinois Department of Corrections.