July 14, 2011 in City

Inmate files suit over English-only policy

Matt Volz Associated Press
 

HELENA – A Montana State Prison inmate has sued the state’s top corrections officials, claiming they won’t let him correspond with family and friends unless the letters are written in English

William Diaz-Wassmer, a 26-year-old Guatemala native, says the prison’s policy violates his constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection. The Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on his behalf June 30, asking a Helena judge to prevent corrections officials from withholding his mail.

Montana Department of Corrections policy allows prison officials to read any correspondence that isn’t a privileged letter from or to a judge, law clerk or the inmate’s attorney. The policy says any nonprivileged correspondence will be withheld if it is in a “code or foreign language not understood by the reader.”

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

Diaz-Wassmer speaks fluent English, having moved to the U.S. in 1985 as an infant, but he says in the lawsuit that his parents and other relatives have limited ability to read or write in English.

He said he had no trouble receiving his mail during his first two years in prison.

But in May of last year, he received a notice from the prison staff that a letter from a friend was rejected because it was not written in English. Then a letter from his father also was rejected in August.

When Diaz-Wassmer complained, he said the mailroom supervisor told him the prison’s Spanish interpreter had departed, and that Diaz-Wasserman would receive letters again when another was hired.

The lawsuit claims the policy violates his First and 14th Amendment rights to freedom of speech and equal protection of laws.

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