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Montana State Prison settles lawsuit over English-only policy

Montana State Prison settles lawsuit over English-only policy

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HELENA – Montana prison officials said Friday they will start translating non-English letters sent to prisoners – a response to a convicted killer’s lawsuit challenging the prison’s letter policy that prevented him from getting mail in Spanish.

The move came after the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana sued on behalf of William Diaz-Wassmer, who says the prison unconstitutionally withheld Spanish-language letters sent to him because officials could not understand the contents.

State attorneys had argued that the mail policy at Deer Lodge prison was not discriminatory. They said incoming mail must be screened to maintain safety and security, and that the prison didn’t have the money or resources to screen non-English letters.

Under the settlement, the prison will make a good faith effort to translate correspondence written in a language other than English within 10 days so it can be screened.

Prison officials said the deal still ensures that inmates are not abusing their constitutional rights in order to undermine prison safety.

“Correspondence with the outside world is one of the freedoms which inmates can still enjoy, unless the correspondence threatens the security, safety and orderly administration of the prisons,” agency attorney Ira Eakin said.

Prison officials say incoming mail represents a potential threat and must be screened to maintain safety and security. Under the previous policy, mail written in code or any language not understood by prison personnel was returned to the sender.

Mail written in code can still be rejected under the new negotiated policy.

Diaz-Wassmer, a native of Guatemala, was convicted in 2007 of killing and robbing a Livingston woman then setting her house on fire to cover up the crimes. He was sentenced to 160 years in Deer Lodge prison.

He claims the prison violated his constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection by withholding his incoming mail written by relatives and friends who have limited ability to read or write English.

Prior to the settlement, prison officials began contract negotiations to provide translation services to the inmates. The ACLU said it is confident that the system being put in place will be responsive. The prison, if it cannot translate a letter, must provide an explanation why it can’t be done.

“The success of rehabilitation efforts of prisoners who are in our prisons is essential if we are to count on them being good productive citizens when they get out of jail,” ACLU legal director Jon Ellingson said. “One of the most important factors with that is maintaining contact with their community, their family, outside the prison.”

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