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Utah: Only State in Nation to Enforce English-Only Policy in Prisons? Thanks to the ACLU of Utah, Not Anymore

15 July 2013 Published in Legal Advocacy

Utah, formerly the only state to enforce English-only policies in prisons for inmates and their visitors, no longer stands out as a bastion of bad policy. We are thrilled to report to our members and supporters that Rollin Cook, Executive Director of Utah State Corrections, withdrew the decades-old English-only policy after we informed him that the policy violated prisoners’ Constitutional rights, and that the policy was outdated and poorly tailored to guarantee the safety of inmates, their visitors, and staff.

English-only rules in prisons make for bad policy for many reasons. For starters, such broadly applied rules, which are typically created as a way to monitor the communications of only a small number of prisoners, needlessly weaken the rights of other, non-English speaking prisoners by limiting their communication with family and friends.

Secondly, policies that indiscriminately target and punish entire groups of prisoners – in this case, the thousands of prisoners in Utah who don’t speak English – don’t reflect the full range of options available to keep prisons safe. Even though policies that broadly infringe on prisoners’ rights are usually motivated by officials’ attempts to make prisons safer environments, these types of across-the-board rules don’t allow prison staff to effectively use all available resources. Prisoners’ communications in Utah, for example, can still easily be monitored now that the English-only policy is gone. Many of the staff working in Utah prisons are multi-lingual, and these staff members’ useful skills will help ensure that safety in Utah prisons will not deteriorate.

In addition to the English-only policy, Utah prisoners were forced to comply with another truly bizarre rule that we persuaded Mr. Cook to abandon: unmarried prisoners could have only one person of the opposite gender on their visitor’s list.

The rule, which was originally put in place after a fight broke out in a parking lot between two women visiting the same prisoner, created both odd and tragic scenarios that limited prisoners’ communication with close friends, and even family. In one case, a prisoner’s female cousin was barred from visiting because the prisoner had already placed his sister on the visitor’s list. In another case, a prisoner’s foster mother was prohibited from visiting her incarcerated son because of the same rule, and was unable to visit him before she passed away.

The prison’s visitation policy additionally made no attempt to accommodate prisoners in same-sex relationships, or to counter stereotypes about relationships between prisoners and unmarried women. We are pleased that Mr. Cook revoked a visitation policy that poorly suited both the realities and logistical challenges that affect prisoners on a day-to-day basis.

We applaud Rollin Cook, Executive Director of Utah State Corrections, for his willingness to confront bad policy and to protect those rights that the Constitution gives to everyone – including, and especially, to those in vulnerable populations.

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