[lg policy] Montana: Prison changes inmate mail policy after lawsuit
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Mon Dec 19 15:31:37 UTC 2011
Prison changes inmate mail policy after lawsuit
Dec 18, 2011 12:01pm
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana State Prison has changed how it
handles inmate mail months after a prisoner sued over what he called a
discriminatory English-only policy.
Inmate William Diaz-Wassmer says prison officials are withholding
letters written in Spanish by the Guatemala native's friends and
family. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed a lawsuit
in June that says the prison's policy violates Diaz-Wassmer's
constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection
State attorneys have previously said that no discriminatory mail
policy exists at the Deer Lodge prison. Incoming mail must be screened
to maintain safety and security, and if mail is written in code or any
language not understood by prison personnel, it is returned to the
sender, the prison's original correspondence policy stated.
An employee had previously volunteered to screen inmate mail written
in Spanish, but that worker retired last year, prison officials have
said in court filings. The prison lacks the funding to employ an
interpreter who can ensure that letters written in a language besides
English don't contain plots or threats, they said.
On Dec. 12, the prison released a revised version of its policy to
address the translation of letters. The policy now says that mail in a
foreign language "may be delayed up to an additional 20 working days
to facilitate translation and review of contents." If attempts to
translate are unsuccessful within the 20 days, the correspondence will
be treated as undeliverable, it says.
The day the new policy was released, both sides in the lawsuit asked a
judge to give them an extra 45 days to reach a settlement. U.S.
Magistrate Judge Keith Strong has given the attorneys until Jan. 24 to
either file a settlement motion or else continue with pretrial
ACLU attorney Jennifer Giuttari said Friday that she knew the state
Department of Corrections had been working on revisions to the policy
but did not know changes had become effective. After reviewing the new
policy, she said it's a positive step but more improvement was needed.
"I think this document is helpful in that it shows the DOC is
perfectly capable of changing their policy," Giuttari said. "Hopefully
they'll keep negotiating to change their policy."
DOC spokesman Bob Anez said agency officials were unable to discuss a
matter that is still in litigation. He referred questions about the
policy change to Deputy Warden Ross Swanson, who did not return a call
Diaz-Wassmer was convicted in 2007 of arson, robbery and deliberate
homicide. He was sentence to 160 years in state prison.
Diaz-Wassmer speaks fluent English, having moved to the U.S. in 1985
as an infant, but he says in his lawsuit that his parents and other
relatives have limited ability to read or write in English.
Giuttari said Diaz-Wassmer has received additional notices of
undeliverable mail since filing the lawsuit, with the explanation that
the letters were written in a foreign language.
The ACLU says the policy affects all inmates who don't speak English
as a first language, and the organization has said it would seek the
exact number of prisoners affected in the discovery phase of the
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