A prison debate program gave inmates a voice. Why was it shut down?

JOILIET, Ill. — In April, WGN Investigates took viewers inside Stateville Prison near Joliet to introduce them to debate coach Katrina Burlet.

The 25-year-old Wheaton College alum worked with 13 men serving life on murder charges. As part of the club, they argued both sides of parole and whether men like them deserve second chances.

"Back there in the cell house, it’s like a dungeon. And there’s a lot of hopelessness and so people don’t necessarily want to talk about the time they have," inmate Michael Simmons said at the time. "So when you get a chance to discuss the possibility of parole coming back… it just brings hope to the darkness that surrounds these cellhouses.”

The program cost the Illinois Department of Corrections almost nothing. It was run by an eager volunteer who has now been banned from state facilities without much of an explanation. So why was it shut down just six days after we broadcast a story about it?

Fast forward to today, the Illinois Department of Corrections has not offered a specific explanation of why it terminated the debate team. In a series of statements, a corrections spokesperson said:“the department has hundreds of programs that are currently being evaluated by our division of programs and support services.” And: “Illinois administrative code gives the department the authority to terminate volunteers at any time.”

Rep. Rita Mayfield was among 18 state lawmakers who attended a formal debate by the inmates that pushed them to bring back parole.

“I don’t think the program should be cancelled at all,” Rep. Mayfield/ (D-Waukegan) said. “I’m going to continue to monitor and make sure those gentlemen are not just left high and dry. I think this is one of the most positive programs to come out of DoC since I’ve been here.”

The debate coach and other activists accuse corrections officials of killing the program because the inmates’ cause took on a life of its own. They lobbied lawmakers, got TV coverage and asked for more debates on parole.

"When I get back to prison, I will train incarcerated people in competitive debate and elevate their voices and give a platform for their voices and ideas to be heard,” Katrina Burlet said.

“We want more education programs in prison and not less, and in this case it means reinstating Katrina and the debate team at Stateville,” prison teaching volunteer Lucy Kane said.

We should mention the Illinois attorney general’s public access counselor is now reviewing a batch of emails between corrections officials about this program’s cancellation.

WGN Investigates requested them through the Freedom of Information Act. We wanted to see if those internal discussions included a reason why the debate team was shut down. Corrections argues the public doesn’t have a right to see the emails because they include staff opinions and frank discussions that led to the decision.