Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center Shuts Down Prison Debate Program

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

As newer readers may not know, both Yves and I were competitive debaters back in the day[1]. From “Parents, Debate Is the Right Competitive Sport for Your Child!,” I listed debate’s virtues: Speaking Before Crowds, Critical Thinking Skills, Research Skills, Rhetorical Skills, and Competitive Skills. And both of us use all those skills every day at this blog (if you think of writing and responding to comments as a form of speaking, as I do). For some reason, debate seems to be part of the zeitgeist just know, which prompted this post. From the Brookings Institution, “A counterintuitive proposal for improving education and healing America: Debate-centered instruction.” They write:

I know it’s unconventional and possibly counterintuitive, what with all the partisan shouting matches we see on cable TV or (if you can bear them) in congressional floor speeches. But those are not the skills taught by competitive debating in school, namely how to: research; think critically and do it on your feet; back up arguments with evidence (not fake news!); work collaboratively with partners; speak persuasively in a civil fashion; and, perhaps most importantly, being able to argue both sides[2] of most any issue or subject. These are also precisely the skills that all students, not just the less than 1 percent who participate in competitive debate, should acquire to be good citizens and to be successful in the workforce[3].

One county in America, Broward County in Florida, recognized this to be the case in 2013, when it became the first and only county—so far—to require all high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools (beginning with fourth grade), to offer speech and debate classes. After getting off to a slow start, this “Broward Initiative” is now thriving, with over 12,000 students currently participating. The county proudly touts how its debate initiative is improving educational performance of its student-participants.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that two of the leaders of movement for gun control who emerged after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, David Hogg and Jaclyn Corin, debated competitively. Several other students from the school had been preparing for debates over gun control before the tragic shooting took place.

Still on the zeitgeist, across the Pond, the Economist agrees. “The struggle to take debating beyond elite private schools“:

Advocates posit a range of benefits. Duncan Partridge of the ESU argues that the confidence and fluency debating inspires will help children in future university applications and job interviews. Teachers at Redden Court say it has improved pupils’ ability to set out their arguments logically, in writing and in class. Debate Mate believes debating can be of wider use still. It has programmes for pupils with behavioural difficulties, including one, “DebateBox”, that mixes debate training with boxing.

Yet, despite these organisations’ best efforts, success in elite debating tournaments is not just becoming more concentrated in private schools, but in the half-dozen of them that take it most seriously.

Joseph Spence, master of Dulwich College, another elite private school, says that efforts to share his school’s expertise have been stymied by the time commitment and expense that competitive debating can involve for state schools. Another problem, Mr Spence says, is that “there is something quite white, middle class and male about the debating format.”[4]

I think the expense argument is peculiar to the UK: “Broward County schools spend $9,127 per student (The US average is $12,383).” But debate’s benefits are agreed.

One arena “beyond elite private schools” would be prison (not noticeably white or middle class[4]). Our earlier post describes how prisoners at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Bard Prison Initiative beat Harvard (and in earlier years West Point, and a nationally ranked team from Vermont). Malcolm X was a debater in the legendary Norfolk Prison Debating Society. Here’s an even more amazing example: “Prisons’ debaters to take on UTT” from Trinidad and Tobago Newsday:

A prison debate team will face-off against students from the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) later this year. This announcement was made at the Youth Training Centre (YTC) during the finals of the prison inter-station debates on September 18.

The prison team will be made up of inmates who emerged as the top ten debaters from the eight prisons that participated in the debate: Port of Spain (PoS) Prison, Maximum Security Prison (MSP), Carrera, YTC, Women’s Prison, Golden Grove, Golden Grove Remand and the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre (ECRC).

At the finals of the prison debates on September 19, MSP won with 820 points over Golden Grove Remand with a score of 740 points. Both teams, dressed in red, long-sleeved shirts and ties, appeared confident and professional. Judges praised both teams for their extensive research and pointed out the difficulties of arguing their topic, which was: Should TT open its borders to Venezuela?

(Interesting topic!) The article goes on to list the top ten speakers. I hope they got trophies!MR SUBLIMINAL Like I did! But this strikes me as amazing: A debate tournament organized across an entire prison system. Here in the Third World, of course, things are very, very different. Which bring me to the Stateville Correctional Center.

The Stateville Correctional Center is a maximum security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois, U.S., near Chicago.

Opened in 1925, Stateville was built in a “roundhouse” design with cells in a circle, and a tower in the center with guards constantly watching. It is modelled after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, what French philosopher Michel Foucault called in his book “Discipline and Punish” the prototype for modern state surveillance. Originally built for 1,500, today Stateville holds 3,500 people.

The panopiticon was closed in 2016, but remains standing due to its historical significance. Here’s what it looks like (Andreas Gursky, 2002)

Nice place for a podium, right there in the middle. Central. I’m sure the acoustics are good. A second photographer, David Leventi, who photographed panopticons (and architecturallly similar opera houses) across the world commented:

[Prison Photography]: Are you able to compare Stateville with the Dutch prisons?

[David Leventi]: Prisoners in Stateville prison are treated like animals.

(The Netherlands also had panopticons.) Animals, however, do not debate, and for a time Stateville Correctional Center had a debate program. Here’s how the program started:

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

Hard to imagine! More[5]:

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.

(Parole was their chosen topic, approved by the debate team’s administrator, the prison chaplain.) So here’s what happened. From Pacific Standard:

Burlet organized a public debate in the prison on March 21st. Eighteen state legislators, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, and others listened to prisoners make the case for re-instituting parole. “It was standing room only,” Ross says with pride.

The debate was well received. According to Ross, the lone dissenter among the administration was Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. During the class that followed the debate, Taylor made a surprise appearance.

“She stood in the middle of our class wagging her finger, saying things like, ‘I don’t need the general assembly thinking about parole, I need them to be thinking about my appropriations,'” [prisoner Eugene Ross, 41] says…. Taylor suggested that she might transfer debate club participants to other facilities, Ross says. “I can shut down this class,” she declared, in Ross’ account.

And sure enough, Taylor didn’t just end the class, Burlet says; Taylor also banned Burlet, without explanation, from all Illinois Department of Correction facilities.

And in fact, the debate had exactly the effect Taylor wanted to prevent. Injustice Watch:

Eugene Ross, a debate class participant, wrote in an affidavit that the class was being cancelled because he and his teammates were “able to articulate themselves in a way that prompted legislators to want to consider the issue.”

One state representative who attended the debate, Rita Mayfield (D – Waukegan) was intrigued by the issue and later returned and met with the class as she conducts research in the hopes of introducing a bill in January to bring back parole to Illinois. Mayfield said in an interview that she is reviewing other states’ parole systems and meeting with various groups over the issue.

Quelle horreur!

I’ll close with a reminder that for prisoners, the benefits of debate may be bit more elemental than speaking and research skills. From a report on a recent California prison debate:

After the competition, inmates said they felt “human again.” They said that they were not just a number, but a person who could accomplish a goal with their team members.

And from a member of the Norfolk Prison Debating Society:

But when asked about the experience, college debater Kelvin Lin said it best: ‘Whatever their crimes, they are people in the end.’Hearing such a sentiment voiced openly, as far as I’m concerned, was the real win for our team — which is now 145-10 and counting.

145-10. Plus common humanity. Holy moley. Anyhow, regardless of one’s larger views on the prison system — Is it even reformable? — what we’ve got here is a simple injustice that should be remedied. For those of you who live in Illinois, here’s a contact form for the Illinois Department of Corrections.


[1] And not the wussy less rigorous modern forms of debate, but policy debate, which involved carrying around heavy briefcases full of evidence on 4×6 cards — no computers back then! — and an ethic of combat rather like football. Nothing like being First Negative and having to get up and speak for ten minutes attacking a First Affirmative case you knew nothing about until you heard it for the first time, and before judges, too!

[2] Not being a binary thinker, or at least trying to avoid being one, I would prefer the locution “any side of” to “both sides of.” I’m not sure how to work that into debate format, which involves two opposing teams, but why not simply add a third?

[3] Or to allocate capital democratically, if it comes to that.

[4] Spence’s comment strikes me as at best parochial. There is a strong debate tradition at historically black colleges and universities, starting (perhaps) at Wiley College (also in the first post at NC), where James Farmer, who organized the Freedom Rides in the Civil Rights movement, was a team member. And see “First All-African American Women’s Debate Team Wins National Competition” for Towson (WBFF).

[5] From WGN: “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.” Good for WGN. We like request for public records, and I love the argument that the records should not be revealed because they might have useful information in them.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. footnote 4

    Looking forward to watching Hollywood players compete for this compelling story that is not a reboot of a reboot or MIC propaganda, right?



  2. Adam Eran

    Thanks for the enlightening look at prison debaters. The prison’s censorship reminds me of what the Romans used to do. The “Liberal” arts were what was forbidden slaves. They didn’t want anyone mastering, say, rhetoric, leading a slave revolt.

    As soon as prisoners are seen as fellow human beings, it becomes harder for the U.S. to continue its draconian prison system. The cult of vengeance remains a powerful part of the current civic religion, though, so hopeful signs may take a long time to bear fruit.

    1. Ook

      Perhaps tangential, but my impression was there were large numbers of educated slaves in Rome: some famous tutor/poets (Livius Andronicus, for instance) started out as slaves.

  3. clarky90

    Kanye West and Jim Brown met with POTUS Trump. Therefore, CNN (among others) launched attacks on Kanye.

    Kanye says that the prison system is neo-slavery. Millions of men and women are working for no, or very little pay.

    Many prisoners end up behind bars because family structures have been systematically destroyed (no Dad at home). Also, mental health treatment is impossible to access by the poor, so many mentally ill people, end up (accidentally, on purpose) in The Neo-Gulag (prisons).

    Here is a complete record of the meeting between Kanye and POTUS in the Oval Office….

    Watch Kanye West’s full speech with President Donald Trump

    This is important. Watch the entire meeting, not just the snippets used to push a particular agenda.

    The Democrats need the black vote….but they are not listening.

    1. Lord Koos

      I have so little interest in hearing either of these men speak… but as far as the black vote, I don’t think Kanye is convincing too many black folks to vote Republican.

  4. flora

    This is my re-write of a portion of a 1740 South Carolina law. The reason for this rewrite and the comparison being made will be clear:
    Whereas, the having [prisoners] taught to [debate], or suffering them to be employed in [debating contests] may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any [prisoner or prisoners] to be taught to [reason and debate], or shall use or employ any [prisoner] as a [debater or petitioner], in any manner whatsoever, hereafter taught to [debate], every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.

  5. Freethinker

    This Illinois resident and public employee will be contacting the Illinois Department of Corrections to nudge management towards resuming prison debates in Illinois. Great posting!

  6. cripes

    Who doubts Gladyse Taylor is a feminist public/private “partner” bureaucrat whose prosperity derives from the misery of others, spends a lot of time sitting on social justice panels when shes not lobbying the legislature for more “appropriations,” diversity-addled, pro-drug war, finger wagging, pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps-like-me, little d dictator who can’t abide freedom of expression in “her” prisons DEMOCRAT.

    precisely the kind infesting government, community, academic, social service, nonprofit orgs everywhere. Little Eichmanns, little Obamas


    1. ambrit

      Try to think outside the meme here. Remove one word in your screed, DEMOCRAT, and most here will agree with you. Leave that one word in and you come across as a hyper partisan and, dare I say it, small ‘t’ troll.
      Remember, when it comes to graft, corruption, and general pandering to the elites; this is an equal opportunity system.

  7. pretzelattack

    they were just trying to protect the prisoners from the moral hazard of learning to advocate more effectively for things like improved living conditions.

  8. KYrocky

    Lambert, thanks for giving debate a plug. I was a debate dad when my daughter debated in high school, policy, of course, which she continued in college. (Her best friend in college was a debater from Majory Stoneman Douglas). I always believed that the skills learned from participating in debate are beneficial across broad professions and should have more prominence in middle and high schools. However, as debate is not something that fits with standardized test taking, its skills and benefits are disregarded. The Broward Initiative, as evidenced by some of the Stoneman Douglas students you mention, instills the skills of truly broad critical thinking in these young minds, and critical thinking, for the most part, is something that the majority of today’s testing driven schools ignore.

    For those who have not been around debaters, particularly policy debate, it is harsh. My daughter was a smart, shy, quiet introverted child who, in middle school, told us she was joining debate to get more confidence to speak up. I feared her confidence would instead be crushed, but debate provided her with just what she needed. I am confident it could do the same for thousands and thousands more youths each year.

  9. RickV

    I was the lead auditor on a Stateville audit in 1979. So in a way I did time at Stateville. We were told during a tour of the cell blocks that the reason round cell blocks were discontinued was the paranoia of the guards in the central guard post with literally 100s of prisoners staring down at them.

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