Thirteen prisoners were sitting in a stuffy classroom at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center one morning last April when a group of prison administrators invited themselves in─and closed the doors behind them.
That was the first sign of trouble. It was against prison rules to close classroom doors─officers needed to see inside─so the prisoners, all participants in a debate team I began coaching at the facility six months earlier, were as baffled as I was.
But in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
Since the previous fall, our debate team, part of a nonprofit program called the Justice Debate League (JDL), had operated with little fanfare or attention from prison authorities. JDL was established to offer juvenile and adult prisoners in the state an opportunity to learn and practice the principles of debating.
As our website explains, we believe that “bringing debate behind bars is a powerful move toward justice and equality.”
One of our main goals for getting these teams up and running was also to use debate as a tool to connect prisoners to the broader debate community. So when a prison chaplain at Stateville suggested that we invite the world in to see how incredibly astute and well-informed the gentlemen I was working with were, we jumped at the chance.
On March 21, we hosted a public debate on the topic of reforming the parole system in Illinois before an audience of about 75 people─including state government and department officials, state legislators, university professors, and activists.
Everyone who attended was blown away by the team’s performance, and rightly so.
We had prepared well. Our class had done six months of in-depth research on different parole systems in use around the U.S. We had studied the history of Illinois’ parole systems at length and had come up with a model of what we believed to be the best possible parole system for Illinois.
The response to the event was phenomenal. Legislators started seriously working on parole legislation. Many of them wanted to return to learn more from the debate team members. Activists had a fire lit under them.
During that April visit to our weekly class, the prison officials made clear that they did not want the message of the debaters to be heard by any other members of the Illinois General Assembly. Although they did not say outright they feared the obvious capacity for influence from this group of men, their actions since couldn’t have made it more explicit.
Our debate program was cancelled. Plans to videotape our class debating the issue of parole in Illinois were also cancelled. Our scheduled debate against Wiley College, an historically black university in Marshall, Tx., (to be held at the Stateville facility) about voting rights for incarcerated people was cancelled.
And I have not been allowed since then into any facilities operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
These events should be troubling to anyone committed to the idea of giving prisoners the skills to use their voices as an instrument for change. We believe that our debate program is a model for similar programs for incarcerated individuals elsewhere in the country─but what happened to us shows how much more needs to be done.
When oppressed people are suddenly given a platform in the public square, historically the oppressor works to revoke that opportunity. The Illinois prison officials stood on the shoulders of many tragically misguided authorities before them. Like their predecessors, they peeled the oppressed out of the public eye, and worked to put the prisoners back in their place.
Prison discipline was used to break spirits so that the men of the debate team would never try something like that again. In this instance, the most outspoken team members were thrown into segregation, threatened with transfer to other facilities, personal mail was delayed or destroyed, and team members were given bogus tickets. For people serving life sentences, this really is the full extent of punishment available.
I am not alone in being completely baffled by the lack of accountability applied to the prison officials for these actions, and in recognizing that their actions constitute such a blatant violation of First Amendment rights that taking the Department of Corrections to court over this is the next logical step.
Since then, I have been encouraged by the amount of support we have received.
Supporters include formerly incarcerated individuals, family members of incarcerated people, friends, advocacy organizations, and many more. But the real power behind this push for justice comes from Stateville’s Debate Team.
The men on this team are the fuel for this fire. If there was ever a group of people courageous enough to take on this fight despite the compounding disadvantages of their state of oppression and obscurity, this is it.
The prisoners who comprise Stateville’s Debate Team are easily the most remarkable group of gentlemen with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working.
In an open letter that the group penned to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner after I had been banned, the team called for reinstatement of my volunteer status, saying that participation on the debate team gave them a “modicum of hope,” and that, “in prison, hope is priceless. It can literally mean the difference between striving for a better future or suicide.”
When a man who is wrongly incarcerated for life and who has exhausted all of his legal remedies tells you that he still believes there is a way he may be set free, that hope shines brighter than all the darkness the prison can muster.
Reason, justice, and the U.S. Constitution are on the side of the Stateville Debate Team.
I believe that sometimes the oppressed do receive justice, and that if we all hope hard enough, it just might happen for us.
Hope really is a powerful weapon, and I eagerly cling to it along with the debate team members on the inside, as I pray that I’ll be allowed to debate with them again.
Editors’ Note: In response to the inmates’ claims, Illinois prison authorities have said the debate team was cancelled because of concerns about “security” at the prison. Speaking on National Public Radio in June, state 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.” He didn’t elaborate, but the Aug. 28 complaint filed by the Uptown People’s Law Center counters that the program organizers “followed all the rules.”
Katrina Burlet is director and founder of the Justice Debate League. She also coaches the debate team at her alma mater, Hinsdale (IL) Central High School. She welcomes comments from readers. Follow her at @Justice_Debate. #LetStatevilleDebate.