Open letter to Gov. Rauner from the Stateville Debate Team

Dear Gov. Rauner,

Stateville Debate Team member Howard Keller speaks with the debate coach and fellow teammates about how victims are unjustly left out of the criminal justice process in preparation for the team’s public debate about bringing a parole system to Illinois. – Photo: WGN9

We, the Stateville Debate Team, write this letter to implore you to reverse Assistant Director Gladyse Taylor’s (and thus the IDOC’s) unjustified decision to terminate the Stateville Debate Team and class and reverse the unjustified ban of our teacher, Katrina Burlet, from Stateville Correctional Center and other IDOC (Illinois Department of Corrections) facilities.

Who are we?

We are human beings. Collectively, we run the gamut from white to Black, atheist to faith leaders among our peers. Several of us are published writers, authors and artists. All of us are concerned citizens.

Ms. Burlet is an excellent teacher, an experienced debater and a devout Christian.

We didn’t ask to be put in the debate class; we just were, based on our positive records. Katrina Burlet came in to teach us how to debate. She left picking the topic of our first debate up to us. Actually, we even debated about the topic, and then ended up voting on it. We settled on parole and rehabilitation, two things Illinois illogically abandoned long ago.

The debate was a huge success by all standards. Ten percent of the Illinois General Assembly attended. So too did dozens of other policymakers, activists, professors, IDOC officials, people from SPAC, ICJIA, the CAARPR, the ACLU, the John Howard Association [and] the Prisoner Review Board. …

Several legislators described the debate as “phenomenal.” More than half of the legislators in attendance expressed a desire to work with us on parole legislation. Nearly every other attendee expressed positive views of the event. Weeks later, both WGN and WBEZ reported favorably upon both the debate and the class itself.

Here at the prison it was much the same. During the debate, staff were relaying updates to incarcerated people in the cell houses (who were not allowed to attend) about how well we were doing. Several staff members remarked that many of us deserve release. The wardens were even pleased. Not only did they thank each of us by name in a memo posted on the closed-circuit institutional television channel, but they awarded us by adding us at the last minute to the list of those allowed to attend the first real music concert at Stateville in decades.

The debate was a huge success by all standards. Ten percent of the Illinois General Assembly attended. Several legislators described the debate as “phenomenal.”

After the debate (and then again after the WGN airing of the news segment about the debate class) dozens of other guys incarcerated in Stateville thanked us both for igniting the conversation about parole and for showing Stateville residents in a positive light.

We felt proud and started preparing for an upcoming debate on voting rights against Wiley College. Riding high for about two weeks, we felt we had accomplished something positive with that debate, something substantial. Then everything changed on April 3.

On that day, Gladyse Taylor, without invitation, rudely took over our class. She informed us that she had come “this close” (holding finger and thumb close to touching) to cancelling the March 21 debate.

She then proceeded to threaten us both outright and in thinly veiled ways. First, she told us that she could shut the class down whenever she wanted because it wasn’t “evidence-based.” Then she mentioned that, assuming that we were all “lifers,” or close to it, classes really shouldn’t be wasted on us – insinuating that she could take us out of all of our classes. Then she mentioned that some of us may not be properly placed at Stateville – insinuating that she could transfer us to Menard, where there are no programs, and where guys are simply warehoused inhumanely.

We felt proud and started preparing for an upcoming debate on voting rights against Wiley College. Riding high for about two weeks, we felt we had accomplished something positive with that debate, something substantial. Then everything changed on April 3.

Then she also claimed to have threatened at least one state legislator at the debate, warning her not to put up any legislation concerning parole, or she, Gladyse Taylor, would “get” her (the legislator). Finally, Gladyse Taylor warned that she better not see her name in any lawsuits.

Her main “beef” with the debate: We were distracting the Legislature from working on “her” appropriations. We assume she meant the IDOC’s appropriations, but at least three times she stated, “The Legislature does not need to be thinking about bringing back parole; they need to be focused on my appropriations.”

At one point, she even attempted to claim that this was an effort to help us get an extra pair of boxer shorts, as if that would earn her points with us. It didn’t. It was condescending. Moreover, it seems Gladyse Taylor doesn’t believe that legislators can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Stateville Debate Team member Alfred Moore-Bey ponders how to be persuasive enough to win a debate – and to win his freedom by convincing lawmakers to reinstate parole. – Photo: WGN9

On [Tuesday] April 24, we had our regularly scheduled class and were informed by Ms. Burlet that she had met with Gladyse Taylor, who made it clear that this would be our last debate class because Taylor had terminated the class under the guise that it was not “evidence-based,” that she (Taylor) did not want us (the students) meeting together any more, but that she appreciated Ms. Burlet’s work and would allow Ms. Burlet to teach another class in an adjacent facility.

Wednesday morning, we were all informed by incredulous staff members that Gladyse Taylor had cancelled the re-creation of the debate [which had been planned so we could videotape it] and banned our teacher from all IDOC facilities.

Gladyse Taylor’s “beef” with the class was, unequivocally, that we were getting access to legislators, were successful in getting the attention of the Legislature on an issue we wanted addressed, and that several legislators were now considering bringing back parole. To her thinking, this diverted attention away from “her appropriations.” She made this crystal-clear on April 3. As more media attention thereafter was brought to the attention of our debate and parole, she decided to try to nip it in the bud.

Let us quickly juxtapose what we got from this class to what we got from Gladyse Taylor for our effort.

We got a tremendous amount from this class. Not only did we learn how to debate and improve upon a variety of other skills – writing, analytical, public speaking, communications etc. – but several of us were able to use this class to fulfill requirements necessary to obtain our bachelors’ degrees.

The success of the debate boosted our confidence, made our friends and families proud, and inspired us to want to hold regular debates about how to address other social issues. It showed us that sometimes our voices do matter; that we can contribute to the dialogue and may even be able to come up with some answers to solve societal ills. In short, it returned a modicum of humanity to us, as the debate not only gave us a platform to be seen as human, but we were then treated as such by powerful people immediately thereafter.

We also received a modicum of hope. Many of us assumed that debating parole would be good only for the learning process; that we would, as usual, be speaking into a vacuum. However, after all of our research, the success of the debate, and the legislators’ interest in working with us on a bill, it has given those of us sentenced to die here hope.

Michael Sullivan presents his view of the rights of victims under the Illinois state Constitution. – Photo: WGN9

In prison, hope is priceless. It can literally mean the difference between striving for a better future or suicide.

In contrast to all of that, what we received from Gladyse Taylor was threats, disrespect, worried friends and family members, our professional debate coach lessons cancelled, our teacher banned, our debate against Wiley College cancelled, and the infringement upon both our right to free speech, and our right to make our opinions known to our representatives.

The art of debate is a touchstone of American democracy. It was at the heart of the crafting of our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, as well as our state Constitution. Every law and policy that we have came about through debate.

The skills we acquired through our participation on the debate team, which included public speaking, effective communication, and gaining control of our emotion and temperament in the midst of disagreements, are fundamental to being socially engaged. This is also critical to the IDOC’s alleged goal of reducing victimization and preventing crime.

The art of debate is a touchstone of American democracy. Every law and policy that we have came about through debate.

This class should be available to all IDOC residents. Instead, it is now available to none.

For all of the above reasons, and in the interests of justice, we respectfully request that you [Gov. Rauner] personally get involved and: a) reverse the IDOC’s banning of Katrina Burlet; b) reinstate our debate team with Ms. Burlet as its coach; and c) issue an executive order granting all Illinois legislators unfettered access to the states’ prisons.

We all thank you for your time and consideration.


The Stateville Debate Team

This is an abbreviated version of the open letter. To read it all, go to To reach the debate team, email the Bay View at To learn more, read the following stories from WGN9: “A prison debate program gave inmates a voice. Why was it shut down?” and their original story, “Debate team of prisoners sentenced to life argues for changes in parole policy.”

Support freedom of speech everywhere in this country – even behind bars. Write Eugene a letter to tell him you support his right to speak freely and affirm his bravery for exercising his First Amendment rights, even when he risked everything to do so. Mailing address: Eugene Ross, K73977, P.O. Box 112, Joliet, IL 60434.