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For the first time in its history, the Utah Department of Corrections will allow prison inmates to converse with visitors in languages other than English.
The policy change is among significant revisions to the prison's general visitation policy set to take effect on August 1, modifications largely aimed at getting rid of rules based on outdated and overly broad gender stereotypes.
One change will allow individuals to be on more than one inmate's approved visitation list, a rule that required, for example, parents who had two children in prison to seek special approval to visit both. Visitors who are non-immediate family members and want to visit an inmate of the opposite sex will no longer have to be accompanied by their spouse, the inmate's spouse or the inmate's parents a requirement that often proved a logistical hardship.
The prison also will allow unmarried inmates to have more than one unmarried person of the opposite gender who is not an immediate family member on his or her approved visitor list. That rule was initially designed to quell complications and potential violence when an inmate had more than one ongoing relationship with a significant other. But in practice, the rule kept friends, foster parents and all sorts of other people from visiting individuals serving sentences at state prisons in Draper and Gunnison.
Utah appears to be the only state in the nation with an English-only rule, according to research conducted last year by three Yale Law School students. Signs at public entrances and in visiting rooms at the prison alerted visitors that all conversations with inmates were to be conducted only in English. If another language was used during a visit, officers would interrupt the conversation and ask participants to speak English or even end the visit.
John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah, said the organization received numerous complaints about the policy from inmates and their family members particularly mothers who wanted to speak to their sons or daughters in their native language.
"That was very concerning to us," Mejia said. "We didn't see any strong penological need to have such a rule and we were also concerned that it might put the prison out of compliance with federal rules regarding accommodations for people who speak a foreign language. The prison walls don't cut you off from our Constitution."
A breakdown of languages spoken by state prison inmates was not available, but department data shows that about 19 percent of the current inmate population is Hispanic.
Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said that the English-only policy was initially adopted as a safety measure to ensure officers who monitor visits could understand conversations between inmates and visitors. Executive Director Rollin Cook, who took over the top post in April, decided to change the policy after hearing concerns about it from the ACLU and discussing it with staff.
Cook said the change strikes a "better balance between the institution's security interests and the public's free speech rights."
Mejia said that while the prison has a strong interest in rules that keep staff and inmates safe, "this went way too far and safety alone couldn't justify it."
Gehrke said many staff members speak other languages and the department will "simply be taking advantage of their already existing skills. In-person visits will continue to be monitored and phone calls will continue to be recorded."
Molly Prince, a therapist who works with parolees and their families and has relatives in prison, said the change in policy would help not only immigrants who do not speak English, by indigenous natives who speak tribal languages.
There are people whose "parents or grandparents speak other languages and I think it is wonderful for them to be able to use their native language to more effectively communicate with their loved ones," Prince said.
Utah also is the only state that limits opposite gender visitors as far as Roy Droddy, director of Utah Prison Watch, can determine.
"I've been to prisons in at least 50 countries and correspond around the world and I've not seen such archaic rules anywhere [in the U.S.or Western European countries]," said Droddy, who questioned prison officials about the outdated policy during a January meeting of Focus, a informational group for friends and family of inmates that meets quarterly.
Prison officials said then that the policy was aimed at preventing dramatic situations, such as a brawl between two women that once broke out in parking lot. But at the January meeting, one participant pointed out the policy completely overlooked same-sex relationships.
The policy also concerned the ACLU, Mejia said.
"It's another rule where it was probably instituted in reaction to a bad situation but in application becomes overly broad," Mejia said. "It is very encouraging that the new administration recognizes these old rules are worth a fresh look and that there can be situations where one bad situation shouldn't create a general rule for all situations."
Gehrke said corrections staff will now address problems that arise on a case-by-case basis rather than with a blanket ban.
Prince also praised the additional rule changes.
"The need for support for inmates is so great and visiting is an important component," she said. "Being able to have friends and family on more than one list just helps to provide more support to the inmates from the community."
Her relative had to constantly add and drop unmarried female cousins and friends from his visitor list to comply with the old rules, which Prince said was a laborious process and perpetuated a stereotype about interactions between inmates and unmarried women. The rule kept her own mother, who is not biologically related to Prince's incarcerated relative, from visiting before she passed away; it also kept an 84-year-old friend who wanted to visit off the list.
"There are plenty of single females who have no interest in romance. They just have a cousin or nephew or friend from high school and want to visit," she said.
Rules at state prisons run gamut
• New York State allows up to six hour visits, 365 days a year, in its maximum security units
• North Carolina allows only one visit per week for up to two hours in maximum security
• California does not limit the number of approved visitors an inmate may place on his or her list
• Pennsylvania allows inmates to have 40 people on a visitation list
• South Dakota allows only two visitors plus immediate family
• Tennessee requires visitors to wait one year between being removed from one inmate's list and added to that of another
• Utah requires all visitors to reapply every year for approval
• Oklahoma prohibits married inmates from receiving visits from friends of the opposite gender
• New Hampshire prohibits all toys from visiting rooms
Source: Prison Visitation Policies: A Fifty State Survey by Chesa Boudin, Trevor Stutz and Aaron Littman of Yale Law School, November 2012, available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2171412