Spanish-language rehab not required, 11th Circuit agrees

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Decision rejects Florida inmate’s First Amendment claim of a right to receive instruction in Spanish in a residential drug-abuse program.

Federal prison officials in Miami did not violate the First Amendment or other constitutional rights when they eliminated a residential drug abuse program that offered instruction in Spanish.

Israel Rodriguez Velazquez, incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Center in Miami, contended in a federal lawsuit filed in January 2010, that prison officials violated his First Amendment free-speech rights, and his rights to equal protection and due process, when they required inmates to speak English.

On his First Amendment claim, Velazquez, who is from Puerto Rico, argued that the policy change denied him his First Amendment right to speak the official language of Puerto Rico. Velazquez speaks only Spanish.

On Jan. 27, 2010, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White issued a report and recommendation to the federal district court, rejecting Velazquez’s argument that the policy change discriminated against Spanish inmates and violated his right to equal protection.

U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard of the Southern District of Florida adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and dismissed Velazquez’s lawsuit on Sept. 15, 2011.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with the lower court and denied Velazquez’s claims in its April 2, 2012, opinion in Velazquez v. Weinman. The panel agreed with the lower court that “Velazquez has no constitutional right to vocational, rehabilitative or educational programs.”

The decision shows that prison officials do not necessarily violate the Constitution when they make an unwise or debatable policy choice, such as ending a program that might increase the chances of rehabilitation for inmates.  Just because a prison policy choice is poor doesn’t mean that it violates the Constitution.

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