Montana denies discriminatory prison letter policy

AP News
Posted: Jul 29, 2011 8:04 PM
Montana denies discriminatory prison letter policy

The Montana State Prison does not have an "English only" letter policy for its inmates, just a lack of funding to employ an interpreter who can ensure that foreign-language correspondence doesn't include plots or threats, state officials said Friday.

The court filing by two special assistant attorneys general on behalf of the Department of Corrections was made in response to an inmate's claim that prison officials violated his constitutional rights by withholding letters written to him in Spanish by his friends and family.

Prison officials say incoming mail represents a threat and must be screened to maintain safety and security. If mail is written in code or any language not understood by prison personnel, it is returned to the sender, the prison's policy states.

"Inmate correspondence can be used to plot threats to the facility, its staff, other inmates and the public at large," the state's court filing reads. "Inmate correspondence written in code or in a language which prison officials cannot understand can be used to facilitate the commission of blackmail, extortion, escape plans, trafficking in contraband and prison assaults and disturbances."

William Diaz-Wassmer, a 26-year-old Guatemala native, said in his lawsuit filed June 30 that the prison has an English-only letter policy that violates his constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection.

The lawsuit named as defendants Corrections Director Mike Ferriter, Montana State Prison warden Mike Mahoney, prison security manager Tom Wood and mail room supervisor Denise DeYott.

The defendants say the policy applies equally to all prisoners, and nowhere in it is the word "English" used.

"While it is true that prisoner do not lose all of their constitutional rights upon incarceration, some rights retained by free citizens are lost or necessarily diminished by imprisonment," their response reads

The prison at Deer Lodge used to employ a security worker who also volunteered to translate Spanish-language letters. But nobody else has come forward to do the job since that employee retired last year, and with a shrinking budget, the prison doesn't have funds to pay for a new interpreter, according to the state's filing.

Diaz-Wassmer is being represented by the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU attorney Betsy Griffing said it doesn't matter whether the actual words "English only" are included in the prison policy _ that's the effect of the policy.

"This policy doesn't just affect Mr. Diaz-Wassmer, if affects all the inmates who don't have English as their primary language," Griffing said.

The ACLU will ask during the case's discovery period for the exact number of Montana inmates who don't speak English as a first language and who have had letters withheld as a result of the policy, she said.

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