News Local/State

Prison Volunteer Sues IDOC Over Cancellation Of Debate Class


Stateville Correctional Center Wikimedia Commons

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against two Illinois Department of Corrections officials over the agency’s cancellation of a debate class for inmates at the Stateville Correctional Center.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, on behalf of Katrina Burlet, a 26-year-old former volunteer debate coach at the prison, and names IDOC director, John Baldwin, and the agency's assistant director, Gladyse Taylor, as defendants. Burlet, a debate champion and Wheaton College graduate, led a debate program at the prison from October of last year through of April of this year — when it was abruptly cancelled by IDOC officials, according to the suit. The claim filed by the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center seeks the reinstatement of the program and damages for Burlet.

In March, a group of roughly 18 legislators attended a debate performance organized by Burlet that included 14 inmates at the prison. The debate focused on the pros and cons of a parole system for those with lengthy or life prison sentences. The men also prepared draft legislation for the lawmakers in attendance to review. According to the suit, Burlet secured the requisite permissions from IDOC officials to host the event, and it was well-received by the lawmakers who attended.

Approximately two weeks later, Taylor allegedly showed up at a debate class at the prison and informed the class members and Burlet that she disapproved of their communication with lawmakers about their views on the parole system, according to the claim. The suit also states that Taylor allegedly told the class that their message was interfering with the agency’s pursuit of its own legislative agenda. The class and another scheduled debate performance were cancelled soon after that exchange, the suit claims. Burlet was also not allowed back into any IDOC or  juvenile correctional facilities. Burlet also taught debate class at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville. 

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

The suit also argues that Baldwin made defamatory remarks about Burlet in an NPR story that aired in June about efforts to bring the program back. In the interview, Baldwin acknowledged that the program was well-received, but he blamed Burlet for its cancellation, saying “this was about somebody who chose not to follow basic corrections safety and security practices.”

When asked about Baldwin’s statement, Burlet said, “that’s a lie.” She said she strictly followed all IDOC protocols and procedures. Burlet said the agency never told her why the program was ended nor why she wasn’t allowed back into IDOC facilities.

Lindsey Hess, a spokesperson for IDOC, wrote in an email that the department “appreciates the time Ms. Burlet dedicated to the program, but has chosen to end the relationship.”

“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,” Hess wrote.

The suit claims that IDOC officials violated Burlet’s free speech rights by preventing the class from engaging in First Amendment activity “for no legitimate penological purpose,” and that this action was taken “with malice and/or with reckless disregard to plaintiff’s rights.” The suit also argues that Baldwin’s statements to NPR implied that Burlet was incapable of performing her job. Burlet founded and heads a nonprofit called the Debate Justice League. The nonprofit aims to establish debate teams inside correctional facilities across the country.

“We are just a year old this month and we are working on getting into other prison facilities, so right at the time we are trying to earn the trust of other state departments of corrections, then all of a sudden there’s an NPR story coming out about how the person running this organization just disregards safety and security issues,” Burlet said. “It has certainly complicated things in our efforts to expand and even exist as an organization.”

Burlet said her primary goal with the suit is to bring the debate program back to Stateville and to be allowed to continue coaching the team.