“If it’s done right, I think this policy can really transform how people with limited English proficiency are treated in Virginia prisons,” said Vishal Agraharkar, an attorney with the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union who worked on Reyes’s case.
Reyes killed his pregnant girlfriend in Alexandria in 1991, then fled to Florida, where it took police nine years to find him. He is serving a 47-year prison sentence.
Reyes, a native of El Salvador, does not understand English or read in any language, his attorneys said in a 2018 lawsuit filed in federal court in Alexandria against the Virginia Department of Corrections.
According to court records, Reyes was initially placed in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County after a fight with another prisoner at a different facility. Court records say he initially resisted moving to another unit, out of fear of assault.
But no effort was made to find a way to move him safely, his attorneys said. Instead, he was placed in a program for solitary inmates that included journaling in English. He missed meals, showers, outdoor recreation and phone calls to his family because prison guards ignored him or failed to communicate in a way he could understand, his attorneys said. Twelve years went by before, with the lawsuit pending, he was moved into less-restrictive housing.
But even then he was “shuffled through” the English-language workbooks, said Maggie Filler, another attorney in the case. “It made no sense for them . . . to make him go through the motions.”
In the 12 years he spent in isolation, she said, Reyes became depressed and delusional. When a professional working with an interpreter diagnosed him with serious mental illness, prison officials blamed the language barrier.
The Virginia Department of Corrections argued that “solitary confinement” did not describe the conditions of any inmate at Red Onion, because prisoners in isolation have access to staffers and reading materials, and that the program Reyes was in was intended to be therapeutic. The settlement, spokesman Greg Carter said, will mean a centralization of language policies already in place.
“Many VDOC policies are already printed and made available in Spanish,” Carter said.
According to a survey by Northwestern University law students, 20 states have policies for ensuring that prisoners who do not speak English can access programs.