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ACLU wants the state Department of Corrections to allow inmates access to foreign language books

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The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the Michigan Department of Corrections to lift its ban on foreign language books. The request follows the department’s decision to rescind its ban on non-English language dictionaries.

The Michigan Department of Corrections does not allow inmates any books written in a language other than English unless they're dictionaries. The ACLU of Michigan wants to change that.

In a letter sent to MDOC this week, the nonprofit says the policy violates the First Amendment.

"I think at the heart of the foreign language material bans is discrimination." — Ramis Wadood, ACLU of Michigan

ACLU attorney Ramis Wadood says the organization is not asking the department to make a unilateral decision on all non-English language materials but to instead take each request for these materials on a case-by-case basis.

“I think at the heart of the foreign language material bans is discrimination. And it's great that they removed the ban on foreign language dictionaries, the heart of the issue of discrimination still exists as to other foreign language materials," he said.

The removal of the ban on foreign language dictionaries was announced in a memorandum from MDOC Director Heidi Washington on July 21, 2022.

Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School Mira Edmonds says the memo doesn't address phrase books, novels written in foreign language books or any other form of foreign language publications besides dictionaries.

"The other category of books that we're concerned about, which is sort of other forms of educational materials or pamphlets, such as technical books on commercial driver's license, manual computer manuals, other things that would help people prepare themselves to reenter the workforce," she said. "The change in policy doesn't mention those at all."

MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz says by lifting the ban, the department wanted to make sure it can give inmates access to educational materials.

"The director is committed to looking at every book on that list and to making sure that the books on that list still need to be there and if there are any processes that we can change that would keep the list from growing in ways that we don't feel it needs to anymore." — Chris Gautz, MDOC spokesperson

"If someone is [learning] English as a second language and they're trying to take the GED (General Education Development) or take some sort of tests, they need to further their studies, and they felt that having a foreign language dictionary to help them better learn English, so that they could do well on their test," he said. "We want to make sure that everyone knew that those could be permitted in such cases."

But according to Edmonds, most English language learners use materials other than dictionaries to learn English.

"Most people don't learn language from a dictionary, that's a tool that assists," she said. "If someone's primary language is not English, and they want to read novels or nonfiction books or any other kind of book in their native language, they would not have access to that. They would only have access to books in English."

Gautz says MDOC is planning a meeting for next week to review its list of banned books.

"The director is committed to looking at every book on that list and to making sure that the books on that list still need to be there," he said. "And if there are any processes that we can change that would keep the list from growing in ways that we don't feel it needs to anymore."

Gautz says officials want to make sure English language learners have access to materials in their own language.
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Michelle Jokisch Polo