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Rejecting Foreign Language Letters after Interpretation May Violate Prisoner’s Rights

Rejecting Foreign Language Letters after Interpretation May Violate Prisoner’s Rights

by David M. Reutter

A Michigan federal district court denied summary judgment to prison officials in a civil rights action involving First Amendment violations. State prisoner Ali Musaid Muthana alleged that his incoming and outgoing mail was destroyed because it was written in a foreign language that could not be interpreted by prison staff; the case eventually settled, with the defendants agreeing to make policy changes and paying attorney fees and costs.

Letters to and from Muthana’s family were written in Arabic, and under Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Policy Directive 05.03.118, prison officials were stopping and destroying his mail. The district court found the policy prohibits prisoners from receiving “[M]ail written in code, or in a foreign language that cannot be interpreted by institutional staff....” If prison staff are unavailable, the “facility head may authorize the use of another reliable interpreter,” but prisoners may not be used for that purpose.

Muthana obtained the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in translating his letters. Once translated, the translation and original letters were forwarded to the prison mailroom. Prison officials, however, rejected the letters and returned them to AFSC because they included the originals written in a foreign language.

In reviewing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court held the MDOC policy was supported by a legitimate penological interest. It also found that prisoners have a First Amendment right to communicate with people outside of prison.

“Additionally, prisoners who are not fluent in English are even more isolated while incarcerated in prison, making it more important for them to maintain communication with friends and family,” the district court wrote.

The court ruled there was an absence of information regarding the denial of Muthana’s request to receive translated versions of his letters from AFSC, which created an issue of fact requiring denial of the defendants’ summary judgment motion on the First Amendment claim.

As Muthana had “failed to allege facts showing he was different from similarly situated prisoners,” his Equal Protection claims were dismissed. However, the court found his retaliation claim could proceed.

Muthana alleged he was transferred from the Marquette Branch Prison to the Alger Maximum Correctional Facility in retaliation for filing a grievance on the mail issue. The court found prison officials presented no evidence to show the transfer was for reasons other than to prevent Muthana from having “his letters translated by another party.” Finally, it held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

After Muthana was appointed pro bono counsel, the parties agreed to a settlement in September 2014 that included a change in Policy Directive 05.03.118, to ensure that translation services are available through a private vendor at the MDOC’s expense. If no such services are available, correspondence in need of translation will be forwarded within one business day to the Office of Legal Affairs, which will “contact the appropriate consulate or embassy and request a translation. Any response from the consulate or embassy will be forwarded to the facility and the prisoner.”

The settlement did not include monetary damages, but the defendants agreed to pay $45,000 in attorney fees and costs. Muthana was represented by appointed counsel Daniel E. Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. See: Muthana v. Hofbauer, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00132-GJQ-TPG; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44407.


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Related legal case

Muthana v. Hofbauer