Community Members Gather to Support Lawsuit Demanding Return of Prison Debate Program

Stateville prison
Stateville prison (Source: YouTube)

IDOC officials disliked prisoner contact with state legislators; canceled program

CHICAGO—(ENEWSPF)—August 27, 2018
Contact: Megan Groves

Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) officials ended Stateville prison’s debate program because officials did not like the prisoners being in close contact with, and thus having an influence on, state legislators. On Tuesday, August 28, lawyers with Uptown People’s Law Center will file a lawsuit on behalf of Katrina Burlet, who headed this successful program, to get the program reinstated.

There will also be a rally to support Stateville debate program’s resinstatement on Tuesday, August 28 at 10 a.m. outside the Thompson Center Plaza, 100 W. Randolph in downtown Chicago.

From approximately October 2017 to April 24, 2018, plaintiff Ms. Burlet taught a debate class for prisoners at Stateville, a maximum security prison for adult men operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections. There were 14 students in the program, all with very lengthy prison sentences.

Program participants decided to debate how Illinois might implement a parole system. Believing that Illinois should provide opportunities for parole for prisoners with long and/or life sentences, they prepared draft legislation that would restore a system of parole in Illinois.

IDOC officials approved their request to have a public debate, and it was attended by approximately 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly. A number of journalists, IDOC officials, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and other members of the public also attended.

The debate was followed by “Q & A” and then “meet and greet” sessions, during which legislators asked questions and engaged with the debaters in ways showing they were giving serious consideration to the policies being proposed.

Less than two weeks later, defendant Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of IDOC, arrived unannounced at a regularly-scheduled debate class and expressed her dissatisfaction about the debate. She informed the class that she did not approve of the class’s communication with legislators, as it would get in the way of IDOC’s pursuit of its own legislative agenda. Ms. Taylor also said it would be detrimental to her personal agenda if legislators continued to pay attention to the class’s message about parole, and she was not going to allow that to happen. Ms. Taylor and other as-yet-unidentified government officials then canceled the debate program, and banned Ms. Burlet from all IDOC facilities.

The lawsuit seeks to reinstate the debate program, and seeks damages for defamatory remarks IDOC director John Baldwin made about Ms. Burlet.

“This is absolutely a First Amendment issue,” said Liz Mazur, legal director of Uptown People’s Law Center, who is bringing the lawsuit. “Prisoners have a right to freedom of speech under the Constitution. This program was canceled because legislators took prisoners seriously, and IDOC retaliated against Ms. Burlet because she helped make the prisoners voices heard by the legislators and the public.”

Uptown People’s Law Center is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has seven class action lawsuits regarding jail and prison conditions.

Source:  Uptown People’s Law Center