PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
CONTACT: Brad Thomson, People’s Law Office, (773) 235-0070 ext. 123
Illinois Prisoners File First Amendment Lawsuit Demanding Return of Debate Program
IDOC officials opposed prisoners addressing Illinois legislators regarding parole and they retaliated by cancelling a debate program
Five prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against officials from Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) for violating the prisoners’ First Amendment right to free speech.
The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District Court of Illinois on May 15, 2019 by the plaintiffs’ attorneys Brad Thomson and Michael Deutsch of People’s Law Office, along with Joshua Herman of the Law Offices of Joshua G. Herman.
The plaintiffs: Lester Dobbey, Joseph Dole, Raul Dorado, Benard McKinley, and Eugene Ross, were all students in a debate class taught at Stateville, a maximum security prison operated by IDOC.
The debate class, which ran from approximately October 2017 to May 2018, had 14 students, all with very lengthy prison sentences. The class was taught by a volunteer instructor who is well respected in the competitive debate community.
The plaintiffs and other members of the debate class decided to debate how Illinois might implement a parole system to provide opportunities for parole to Illinois prisoners with long and/or life sentences.
IDOC officials approved their request to have a public debate, which occurred in March 2018 and was attended by approximately 18 members of the Illinois General Assembly. A number of journalists, IDOC officials, members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and other members of the public also attended.
Members of the public responded positively to the debate and the event was followed by a question and answer session in which state legislators posed thoughtful questions to the debaters.
After this highly successful public event, defendant Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of IDOC, expressed her opposition to the plaintiffs communicating with Illinois legislators regarding parole. Defendant Taylor made it clear that she would take steps to prevent the plaintiffs from expressing such messages. Defendant Taylor, along with other IDOC officials, then cancelled the debate class and another scheduled debate event.
The lawsuit seeks for the debate program be reinstated and other relief related to the alleged violations of the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
“These men were exercising their right to freedom of speech,” says Brad Thomson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys with People’s Law Office. “The fact that they were using their Constitutional right to effectively advocate for parole to legislators angered certain IDOC officials. When state actors use their power to retaliate and shut down speech because it differs from their personal political agenda, it is an abuse of their authority and a violation of the Constitution.”
One of the plaintiffs, Benard McKinley went to prison at the age of 16. In describing the debate program, he says, “For decades, IDOC officials have felt the need to paint this negative picture to the citizens of Illinois that all those who are incarcerated behind these walls are to be considered dangerous and unredeemable. Being part of the debate team, and being able to deliver this positive message, but needed message, to the citizens of this state in our first ever live debate, I was able to see that what we was showing and saying at this debate was contrary to IDOC’s negative narrative.”
Like Mr. McKinley, all the plaintiffs in the lawsuit went to prison at very young ages and are serving an extensive prison sentences and currently have not opportunity for parole. They have all actively sought out educational and programmatic opportunities to foster their rehabilitation, which is why they were selected for the debate program.
Joseph Dole, one of the plaintiffs, says, “Prison debate teams have been around for decades. They have universally been seen as important rehabilitative tools across the country.”
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People’s Law Office is a civil rights law firm headquartered in Chicago that has been defending our clients’ Constitutional rights and fighting against police misconduct, wrongful convictions, and governmental abuses of power since 1969.