After a successful public debate on reforming, the Illinois parole system, prison officials shut down the Stateville Debate Team in April.
The goal of the team was to use debate as a tool to “connect prisoners to the broader debate community” and provide an opportunity to learn and practice the principles of debate, said Katrina Burlet, director of the Justice Debate League (JDL) and coach of the Stateville Debate Team.
JDL hosted a public debate on reforming the Illinois parole system with an audience of about 75 people “including state government and department officials, state legislators, university professors, and activists,” said Burlet in The Crime Report.
JDL found the debate response phenomenal.
“Legislators started seriously working on parole legislation. Many of them wanted to return to learn more from the debate team members,” Burlet said.
Within a month of the debate, prison authorities shut down the team. “I have not been allowed since then into any facilities operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Burlet said.
Illinois prison authorities cancelled the Debate Team because of concerns about “security” at the prison. Speaking on National Public Radio in June, Illinois Department of Corrections Head John Baldwin acknowledged the debate program “was really well received, but this was about somebody who chose not to follow basic corrections safety and security practices.”
“Prison discipline was used to break spirits so that the men of the debate team would never try something like that again,” Burlet said. On Aug. 28, the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) of Chicago filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Stateville Debate Team over the retaliatory actions taken by the Illinois Department of Corrections against the debate sponsors and prisoner participants. UPLC is part of JDL, which provides an opportunity to learn and practice the principles of debate.
SQN – Why do you think debate groups are important?
I think that one of the main reasons to have a de- bate program inside prisons is to help inmates participate in public conversation about things that matter to them, such as the parole system.
SQN – After reading about the prison administration disbanding the Stateville Debate Team, what would you do different?
I find this story depress- ing, and I feel horrible for the author and her team of students at Stateville in Illinois. They were doing exactly what they should have been doing. Assuming that article is accurate, the reactions of the Stateville administration shows, I think, that they don’t respect the knowledge and ability of their own in- mates to generate compelling arguments about au analysis of the parole system.
SQN – Why do you think that?
They underestimated the team’s skills, and they over- reacted to the possibility that people in power might find the inmates’ ideas compelling. I hope the administration reconsiders their actions.”