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Cancellation of Illinois Prison Debate Class Debated in Court

by Kevin W. Bliss

In August 2018, Katrina Burlet brought suit in federal court against John Baldwin, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and Assistant Director Gladyse Taylor. The complaint, filed on behalf of Burlet by Uptown People’s Law Center legal director Liz Mazur, claimed the defendants had violated Burlet’s right to free speech when they canceled a debate class she began for prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center. 

It also alleged that Baldwin’s statements to National Public Radio (NPR) during an interview were slanderous. She is seeking reinstatement of the class and monetary damages.

Burlet, 26, a debate champion at Wheaton College, submitted a request to IDOC officials to create a debate team at Stateville in 2017. She had founded a nonprofit organization called Debate Justice League, devoted to forming prison debate teams nationwide and funded by private donations, and had already established a program at the Illinois Youth Center. 

Permission was granted and 14 prisoners were selected to begin three-hour classes once a week on speaking with persuasion, structure, and formal logic and philosophy.

Burlet said the prisoners wanted to debate the issue of parole for those serving lengthy sentences. She organized a formal debate for her class before a group of 18 state legislators and dozens of other attendees in March 2018, after an initial debate was postponed. Her lawsuit stated the response to the debate was “overwhelmingly positive.” During the event, the debate team submitted proposed legislation to help re-establish discretionary parole in Illinois.
Two weeks after the debate, Taylor came to Stateville to tell the class that she disapproved of their communication with state lawmakers. According to Burlet, Taylor said she would not allow the team’s message of parole reformation get in the way of the IDOC’s planned budget appropriations.

Taylor canceled the debate class in April 2018, purportedly because it was not an “evidence-based” program as required for state approval. Burlet was prohibited from returning to any IDOC facilities or to the Illinois Youth Center, where she taught another debate class.

“The reason why we think there’s legal claims here is because they didn’t shut down the program for a legitimate penological purpose,” Mazur stated. “It was political. It was about not wanting to give a platform to people who were incarcerated, particularly not one that distracted legislators from IDOC’s own legislative agenda.”

In an interview with NPR, Baldwin said Burlet “violated basic corrections safety and security practices,” implying that she was incapable of performing her job appropriately. Burlet countered by saying, “That’s a lie.” She noted she had followed all IDOC policies, and was concerned about such statements affecting other states’ decisions to incorporate her fledgling debate organization.

Stateville’s debate team wrote a lengthy plea on May 17, 2018 to then-Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. In it, the team argued Taylor’s decisions were vindictive and unjustified. They used the skills they had learned in the debate class to lay out a persuasive argument as to why it was obvious that Taylor’s actions were inappropriate and self-serving. They accused her of acting unethically and unconstitutionally, and asked Rauner to intervene on their behalf and assist in reinstating the program. 

The debate team wrote that on April 3, 2018, “a state legislator was scheduled to attend our class for further discussions about parole legislation. Instead, Gladyse Taylor, without invitation, rudely took over our class. Flanked by two wardens and an unidentified third person, Gladyse Taylor entered the classroom, ordered both doors closed and (an act which is usually forbidden in Stateville for security reasons), rudely rifled through Ms. Burlet’s personal notes, and announced (without introducing herself) that: a) She had denied entry to the state representative that day; b) she didn’t want any more legislators invited to our class (‘no more legislators,’ she admonished Ms. Burlet with a finger wag, as if our teacher were a child); and c) she, Gladyse Taylor, had skipped a public event to come set us straight.”

Thus far the debate class has not been reinstated at Stateville, though IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said, “The department acknowledges that the program was well-received and that it has positive attributes. The program is currently under review and the department will make a determination on how to move forward once the review is complete.” 

Burlet’s lawsuit remains pending. See: Burlet v. Baldwin, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:18-cv-05875. 



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Related legal case

Burlet v. Baldwin