UTAH STATE PRISON — Starting Aug. 1, people visiting inmates at the Utah State Prison will be able to talk to them in any language they want.
The Department of Corrections' new executive director, Rollin Cook, recently announced changes to the prison's inmate visitation rules after consulting with staffers and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many of those rules hadn't been changed since the Draper facility opened in 1951, Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said. One of those mandates was that prison inmates and their visitors could only speak to each other in English.
The rule was for security concerns, said Gehrke. Corrections officers "needed to hear what was being said." The fear was that information regarding gangs or plans to start a riot or an escape would be discussed in another language.
Today, that policy is "seen as archaic," he said.
Many of the prison staffers speak a second language in addition to English and the ability to monitor in-person visits as well as record phone calls will still be in place.
There weren't many violations of the English-only rule in the past, Gehrke said. But those who broke the rules were typically given a warning or their visits were promptly ended.
Gehrke did not know how many inmates the English-only rule affected, how many inmates speak English as a second language, or if there were any inmates who could not have visitors because they did not speak any English at all.
According to the Department of Corrections' website, 66.5 percent of the current prison population at the Draper facility is white, 19 percent is Hispanic and 6 percent is black.
Another new change at the prison will be in nonfamily member visitations.
Currently, a person who is not related to an inmate can only be designated to visit one inmate at the prison. In other words, if a person has five friends who are incarcerated at the Utah State Prison and is not related to any of them, that person can only be on the approved visitation list for one inmate.
The rule was originally implemented "because you didn't want some member of the public, who might be gang member, trying to pass messages through the prison from one gang member to another to facilitate communication," Gehrke said.
But the policy provided big hurdles for some, including foster parents. Gehrke said the prison administration has decided now to address potential problems on a case-by-case basis rather than have a blanket policy.
The rules for opposite gender visits will also change Aug. 1.
Currently, a nonrelative of the opposite sex can only visit an inmate if accompanied by that inmate's spouse or parents.
"That policy was because of problems in the past with fights during visitation when spouses found out about an affair," Gehrke said.
Incidents like that were rare, which is why prison officials have decided that such cases can be handled on an individual basis, "rather than treat everyone like they're going to break the law," he said.
An unintentional result of the old policy was that gay inmates were able to have partners visit without a problem, but heterosexual inmates with friends of the opposite gender could not.