SALT LAKE CITY — Utah prisoners will be allowed to talk with visitors in Spanish or any other language they want now that a long-standing English-only rule has been scrapped.
By Aug. 1, signs in the Utah state prison saying, "All visits will be conducted in English," will be taken down in a policy change ordered by Utah's new prison boss, Rollin Cook.
That will put an end to the nation's only written rule from a state prison system forbidding foreign languages during visits, said Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender in the city and county of San Francisco and one of three authors of a Yale University law school study that reviewed prison rules across the United States.
"I was shocked," Boudin said of when he learned of the rule. "This is a country that prides itself on its diversity: racially, ethnically, linguistically. Utah, while not the epicenter of immigration in this country, has many language groups."
The rule for visitations was initially put in place as a safety measure so corrections officers could understand what was being said by inmates and visitors, said Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke.
The new policy, first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, takes effect Aug. 1.
It was triggered by a meeting Cook, who took over in April, had with representatives with the American Civil Liberties Union, which for years has been complaining about a free speech violation of the policy.
Cook came away convinced it was time to ditch the old rule, but first wanted to meet with the prison staff and make sure they could still maintain safety while also allowing more languages to be spoken. They told him they could do it, and Cook signed off on the new rule.
He said the change gives Utah prisons a better balance between security and the rights of prisoners and their families. Cook notes that it also recognizes the vital importance of visits in a prisoner's path to being good citizens upon their release.
"That's their connection to the community and to their family and friends," Cook said. "It's going to make the visitation a lot better for people that don't speak English as their first language."
Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said prison officers will still have the authority to cut off conversations and ask visitors to either speak English or leave if they think they are hatching nefarious plans that put officers in danger. Cook said he has zero concerns about the new policy compromising security.
John Mejia, legal director for the Utah chapter of the ACLU, said he was thrilled by the policy change. The chapter has received a steady stream of complaints about a policy many considered discriminatory.
"It stopped their friends, mothers, friends, cousins from being able to talk with them in their own language," Mejia said.
Previous Utah prison bosses were reluctant to jettison the firmly established rule, citing safety concerns, Mejia said. But Cook, who worked closely with the ACLU in his previous job as Salt Lake County jail commander, turned out to be a receptive audience.
"It's very heartening that the prison administration was willing to listen to our concerns," Mejia said.
Corrections officials don't know how many of the 7,000 prisoners speak foreign languages, but an ethnicity breakdown shows that nearly two-thirds of prisoners are white and one-fifth are Hispanic.
Mejia said in addition to Spanish, some prisoners and their families speak Pacific-Islander languages and Native American languages.
"It recognizes that prisoners have free-speech rights despite being in prison," said Mejia, adding that the policy will enable prisoners to maintain closer ties to family and friends.
Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs