Debate team of prisoners sentenced to life argues for changes in parole policy

CREST HILL, Ill. — A 25-year-old from the suburbs leads a weekly debate group in an unlikely location -- the Statesville Correctional Center.

They’re arguing for the return of parole possibilities for some of the most serious crimes in the state; and lawmakers are listening. As the group of men serve out life sentences for murder, they also tackle tough topics – from both sides. Katrina Burlet, 25, is their debate coach.

“I was first on a competitive debate team in college and we were engaging in a lot of debates about the criminal justice system,” she said. “I felt like the fact no one from the criminal justice system was involved in them was a very big hole that needed to be filled.”

Many in the room were convicted of murder and sent away for life when they were barely out of their teens.

“We talk about victims a lot in our debate about parole,” Burlet said.

One debate exercise has the prisoners put themselves in the victim’s place. Michael Simmons is in Statesville for armed robbery and murder. He said he still thinks about something his victim’s mom said during sentencing.

“She said that she hoped that I would see the error of my ways and that I will make a change in my life,” he said. “And I decide to do something better in my life rather than waste it with more wrong decisions and choices. And, you know, her words stuck with me because of all the people she was still holding out hope for, it was me. The guy accused of killing her best friend, her son.”

The prison debate team is arguing for the return of parole for serious offenses but are also pushed to see it from the other perspective. Last month, 20 state lawmakers were in the audience as the inmates turned their newly developed debate skills into a forceful argument for parole. These prisoners and their debate coach argue parole gives the prisoner a reason to rehabilitate and victims’ families a reason to re-evaluate.

And “hope” is a word you hear a lot in the prison debate club.

“I think that reconciliation is a very, very powerful thing,” Burlet said. “A lot of times when a relationship is broken or trust is broken, keeping those two parities apart forever is only going to solidify the wall that’s been built between them and everyone’s just going to stew in their own anger.”

Cameras were not allowed to record the debate as it was performed for state lawmakers. When it was over, the Stateville debate team handed lawmakers legislation they wrote themselves that would re-establish parole opportunities in Illinois.

One state senator told WGN’s Ben Bradley it was good to see the men advocating for reform but he said, “Let’s not forget the reason these men are in prison,” or their victims.