Our View: Multilingual Utah prisons

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:40 PM

Editorial Board

Scrapping the English-only rule at Utah prisons is a correct move. The long-held reason for the rule — that it was for safety reasons — never really made any sense. Also, allowing inmates to talk with visitors in Spanish or other languages is not a policy change that incurs any additional cost to taxpayers, or adversely affects prison staffing.

So, at the end of this month, the signs in the state prison that read “All visits will be conducted in English” will be taken down. Utah was the last state in the nation that prohibited foreign languages during visits. Rollin Cook, who is in charge of Utah prisons, says that prison staff assured him that they have the employees to make sure that the change will not affect safety.

It bears noting that the change does not stop prison staff from ending visits at any time, ending conversations and requiring that inmates and visitors switch their conversations to English. In other words, prison staff retain the ability to demand English is spoken if they have concerns that illegal activities are being discussed.

There are about 7,000 prisoners in the Utah state system. Two-thirds are white and about 20 percent are Hispanic. Other languages that Utah prison inmates speak include American Indian languages and Pacific-Islander languages. Prohibiting language use by inmates seemed an unnecessary act of disrespect to inmates, particularly if their visitors could not communicate in English.

We’re glad the rule will soon be changed. Visits to an inmate are important to that individual’s well-being while incarcerated. It never made any sense to have rules that diminished the positive effects of such visits.

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