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Do American Prisoners Have Free Speech?

The shuttering of a prison debate club shows the precarious nature of free-speech rights among American inmates.
Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

"One of the biggest concerns we have as inmates is that our voices are being suppressed," prisoner Eugene Ross, 41, told a meeting at the Thompson Center in Chicago.

Ross, who was arrested as a juvenile and is serving life without parole, was speaking to a press conference organized to demand the return of the weekly debate club at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois. The conference was organized by the debate club's adviser, Katrina Burlet, and Bill Ryan, co-founder of the prison newsletter Stateville Speaks. Addressing reporters from prison via his sister's cell phone, Ross was protesting the prison administration's decision to suspend the club without official explanation after the club held a public debate on March 21st about the virtues of parole.

Soon after addressing the press conference, Ross inadvertently gave a live example of how prisoner's voices are suppressed: His phone call was cut off, and, as he tells it, 20 minutes later the assistant deputy director and a group of correctional officers "came to my cell door and extracted me from my cell and took me to solitary confinement." Ross says he remained in solitary overnight, and was released back into the general population the following day. It was only because people who had heard his press conference barraged Stateville with calls, Ross says, that he was released from solitary so quickly.

Worrying about free speech in prison will strike some readers as an oxymoron. Prison is a place expressly designed to restrict people's freedom. Convicted criminals are punished for their crimes by having their movement restricted and their actions monitored. When people have so little freedom anyway, restrictions on freedom of speech might seem relatively inconsequential.

In fact, it's because prisoners are so unfree that freedom of speech for them is especially important. Prisoners can often be punished and abused with impunity; they have little recourse to protect themselves from unjust treatment.

"There's no one who can share about how bad prison is better than the people who are in there," says Stateville debate coach Katrina Burlet. "So I think that their voices should be heard in every forum possible."

Burlet was trying to amplify those voices when she volunteered to start the debate team at Stateville in 2017. She had already been coaching teams in juvenile facilities, but the Stateville class was her first project with adults—and it was a great success on the whole. The men in Stateville voted to elect 13 inmates to take the course. Those 13 students then decided to focus on the issue of parole for their class topic. They spent months researching national parole policies, and digging into arguments for and against parole.

"Parole was abolished in Illinois in 1978," Ross says. "At that time, the Illinois prison population was about 10,000 inmates or so. Today in 2018, the Illinois prison population is hovering around 50,000 inmates. From 1978 up until now, there has been no release valve to release those individuals who are rehabilitated."

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,'" Ross says. For Taylor, parole represented a threat to prison funding, and she worried that it was a dangerous distraction to let legislators listen to the prisoners. 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. Burlet is still banned from teaching at Stateville, and from the juvenile facilities where she'd coached before. (Burlet has filed a lawsuit against the IDOC; Taylor's office has said that it cannot comment for this article because of the pending litigation.)

The shuttering of the debate club, and the apparent retaliation against Ross and Burlet, may seem arbitrary and draconian. But such steps are not unusual in prison. The ACLU says that it "regularly receives reports of prisons and jails restricting the rights of prisoners to communicate with their family members and the public."

In 2016, for example, Arthur Longworth, a prisoner at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, self-published a novel called Zek: An American Prison Story, which offers a critical portrait of the prison system. Longworth says that he had to have the novel smuggled out of prison by an English teacher. It was quickly barred from Monroe, and the English teacher who helped bring the manuscript to publication was banned from the facility. Longworth was repeatedly threatened with solitary confinement, according to the Marshall Project. Similarly, Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, a prisoner in Florida, was placed in solitary earlier this year—in retaliation, he believes, for publishing an article about the injustice of enforced prison labor.

There has been much discussion in recent years of the free speech implications of "no-platforming," or barring certain speakers from campuses or events. Some argue that speakers like the alt-right leader Steve Bannon who support racist or bigoted policies should not be invited to speak, and that they are not owed a platform to spread their views. Others insist that keeping certain speakers off certain platforms prevents students and other citizens from being exposed to unfamiliar viewpoints.

The irony, though, is that no-platforming debates generally center on people like Bannon, or race-science proponent Charles Murray, who have publishing deals, easy access to journalists, and a wide array of opportunities to air their views in public forums. These speakers have lots of platforms, even if they are occasionally denied a specific platform now and then.

Prisoners, on the other hand, often have literally no way to make their voices and perspectives heard. They can't go to college campuses to speak; they often have little access to the Internet; if they write something for publication, it may be seized, and they may be subject to retaliation.

"The voice coming from within has always been suppressed," Ross says. "There has never been a vehicle to have the voice from within come out. The public know a lot of the atrocities that go on behind the prison walls, but because the voice has been suppressed for so many decades, the public hasn't been able to hear the perspective from those who are oppressed."

The public prison debate at Stateville gave attendees, including legislators, a chance to see prisoners not as perpetrators, and not even as victims, but as people who have something to contribute to public discussion. The debate club members, Burlet says, "are extremely intelligent and have a lot to offer." Burlet says that these inmates challenge the preferred correctional narrative, "that these people are scary and we need to keep them locked up."

The Stateville debate club showed that prisoners have a lot to tell us. The casual ease with which it was shut down illustrates how vulnerable prisoners are, and why they have a serious need for free speech.

"To suppress any voice, particularly the voice of the oppressed, to do something like that—that goes against everything this country is about," Ross says. "We live in a democracy; everyone's voice is important."