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Prisoners In Illinois Ask Governor For Help Getting Their Debate Team Back


Now for the story of an Illinois prison debate team that was disbanded but is arguing it should be reinstated. The team recently made their case to state lawmakers hoping to change parole laws. And they say that might have been why prison officials shut them down. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It was just last year that 26-year-old Katrina Burlet volunteered to run a debate program at Stateville prison, a maximum-security facility about 45 miles outside of Chicago. Burlet and her class of 13 inmates considered what topics to discuss.

KATRINA BURLET: Topics like, what is the best way that incarcerated men can support the #MeToo movement? And how can Chicago most effectively decrease gun violence?

CORLEY: Might not be a surprise that parole was a hot topic because in Illinois, they do things a little differently. Instead of an early release under parole, most inmates must serve all their sentence in prison and, when they're out, live under additional supervision. Eugene Ross, speaking by phone from prison, also said some sentences should even be vacated.

EUGENE ROSS: A guy was just at my door. He's been incarcerated over 40 years. This individual has absolutely no hope for any release simply because the laws are what they are here in Illinois. We're fighting to try to get that changed.

CORLEY: And that's what the inmates argued when Illinois lawmakers, including Representative Will Guzzardi, showed up for their debate.

WILL GUZZARDI: They were thorough, well-researched, articulate, had a profound understanding of the system and how it worked.

CORLEY: He and others were interested in working with the prisoners on legislation, but prison officials canceled the next debate, then pulled the plug on the entire program. They also banned the debate coach from all Illinois prisons. Coach Burlet says the shutdown may have come because the debate gave the prisoners a platform.

BURLET: And the first time that they are given this platform, they point out the fact that thousands of their peers probably shouldn't be in prison. And the legislators respond positively and want to work with them to establish a system for rehabilitated people to be released.

CORLEY: The head of the Illinois Department of Corrections, John Baldwin, says it wasn't the focus on parole that ended debate at Stateville. He says it was concerns over the coach wanting lawmakers to have unfettered access to the prison and its debaters.

JOHN BALDWIN: The debate program was really well-received. But this was about somebody who chose not to follow basic corrections safety and security practices. And that cannot happen in an institution.

CORLEY: The debate team supporters say the coach did nothing wrong. Even so, there's always been an argument over what correctional facilities should do. Are they warehouses that focus on punishment or places of rehabilitation? And where does a program like debate fit in?

DAVID REGISTER: There's so much value to debate for incarcerated people.

CORLEY: David Register is coach and founder of the prison debate team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. It's part of the renowned Bard College prison initiative. Besides debate teaching inmates how to communicate effectively and other skills, he says it also provides a civic education.

REGISTER: I think debate offers an avenue for people to get engaged with their larger communities and really think of themselves as an individual who is part of a community and not separate from it.

CORLEY: Which is exactly what the prisoners argue in a letter addressed to the governor of Illinois asking him to intervene. They may win one argument but lose another. If there's a debate revival at Stateville, prison officials say the debate coach will be new. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA SONG, "DRIVE ME WILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.