Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Foreign prisoners
at Halawa upset
mail must be
in English

Prison officials agree to
research how other states
handle the issue

By Lori Tighe


Foreign prisoners at Halawa Correctional Facility can talk, pray and receive visitors in their native language, but they can't exchange letters through the mail except in English.

They say the policy prevents them from contacting their families and call it discriminatory.

"They are really depressed. They know they have letters waiting for them," said Brother Francisco Gomes of the Hispanic Ministry Diocese of Honolulu, who contacted the media on behalf of three Mexican prisoners. "One of them is expecting a child and waiting for his wife to send photos."

Three men, Antonio Escobedo, Ernesto Vargas and Antonio Ramos, came from Mexico to Hawaii illegally for a few months when they were arrested for selling drugs. They were sentenced for 10 to 20 years each.

"For the Latino inmates, the mail is the only connection we have with our families," wrote the prisoners and translated by Gomes. " ... Our families back home don't know about this regulation so they keep writing and wondering why we don't answer."

The state Department of Public Safety has agreed to research how other states treat their immigrant prisoners and to respond with an answer by the end of the month, said Marian Tsuji, deputy director.

"We don't want to discriminate against anyone, but we also are responsible for maintaining secure facilities," Tsuji said.

She said prisoners' mail must be in English so it can be censored -- unless it is privileged mail from their attorney or the state ombudsman, in which case it is not read.

"We want inmates to correspond with their families, but we have security issues to deal with," Tsuji said.

Civil rights lawyer, Earle Partington, said the prison policy may violate the prisoners' rights and the Vienna Convention, an international treaty that gives imprisoned foreigners the right to contact their consulate.

"Quite frankly, it's ridiculous. I think there are serious issues raised by this policy by not allowing them to contact their families in their native tongue," he said.

"I would advise the prisoners to send a letter in their native language to their consulate. If the prison tries to block it, the prison is in violation of the Vienna Convention and the state could be sued."

Mexican consul Elia Silverman is investigating whether mail is a privilege or a right for prisoners, Gomes said.

Gomes, who began volunteering at Halawa in 1996 at the Catholic Church's request, said he corresponds with Latino prisoners in California and even on Kauai with no problem.

Prison officials said they won't allow Latino employees to translate the letters because staffers are overworked, Gomes said.

Halawa initiated its English-only letter policy in 1996, according to Gomes, who helped convince the warden into changing the policy to allow foreign language correspondence. But then the policy was reversed about a month ago, Gomes said.

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