by Christopher Zoukis
As of August 1, 2013, Utah state prisoners are able to talk to their visitors in languages other than English, reversing a longstanding policy.
The change puts an end to the nation's only state prison system rule that forbids foreign languages during visits, according to Chesa Boudin, a federal public defender in San Francisco and co-author of a Yale University study on prison visitation. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.1].
According to the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC), approximately one-fifth of the state's prison population is Hispanic. John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said that for many years his office had received a steady stream of complaints about the English-only visitation policy. Utah has many Spanish-speaking prisoners as well as others whose families speak Pacific Islander and Native American languages, he noted.
The policy change was initiated by the Utah DOC's new director, Rollin E. Cook, who took over in April 2013 and agreed to make the change after meeting with ACLU officials. The English-only rule had been in place for decades as a "safety measure" so guards could monitor prisoner-visitor conversations, according to DOC spokesman Steve Gehrke. Guards will still have the authority to cut off conversations and ask visitors to either speak in English or leave if they think they are discussing nefarious plans, he stated.
Director Cook said he has "zero concerns" about the new policy compromising security, adding the change gives the DOC a better balance between security and the rights of prisoners and their families. He stressed the positive impact of visits on prisoners' rehabilitation. "That's their connection to the community and to their family and friends. It's going to make the visitation a lot better for people that don't speak English as their first language."
The DOC also changed its policy prohibiting "a nonrelative of the opposite sex" from visiting unless they were accompanied by the prisoner's spouse or parents. Prison officials had claimed the policy was intended to prevent "fights during visitation when spouses find out about an affair," Gehrke said. Because such incidents were rare, however, the rule was scrapped. The DOC will also now allow visitors to be on the visitation lists of more than one prisoner, on a case-by-case basis.
Sources: Associated Press, www.desertnews.com, www.oregonlive.com, www.sltrib.com
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