Eleventh Circuit: There's No Right to Speak Spanish in Rehab

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 04, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One man's immersion program is another man's Bivens claim.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that Miami prison officials did not violate a Florida prisoner's free speech rights when they eliminated Spanish from a residential drug abuse program.

Israel Rodriguez Velazquez, who is serving time at the Federal Correctional Center in Miami for narcotics trafficking, filed a Bivens claim alleging 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.

Velazquez, who is Puerto Rican and only speaks Spanish, argued that he had a First Amendment right to speak the official language of Puerto Rico, according to the First Amendment Center.

Both a magistrate judge and a district court judge had previously rejected Velazquez’s claims. This week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal in an unpublished opinion, concluding, “Velazquez has no constitutional right to vocational, rehabilitative or educational programs.” The appellate court cited several D.C. Circuit decisions, including Women Prisoners of the D.C. Department of Corrections v. District of Columbia and Franklin v. District of Columbia, in the opinion. (It seems that the D,C. Circuit is a particularly staunch opponent of the right to rehab theory.)

Here’s our question: How could the residential drug abuse program rehabilitate Velazquez if he did not understand the language in which the program was conducted? Granted, immersion language programs are incredibly successful and Velazquez will probably exit the program with a grasp on the English language, but the purpose of a drug abuse program is ostensibly rehabilitation, not English as a second language.

Even if eliminating the Spanish language option from the program isn’t a free speech rights violation worthy of a Bivens claim, how could it satisfy the sentencing judge’s goals?

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