Judge Lets Mexican Prisoner Sue Over Denial of Spanish-Language Entertainment

A Tennessee assistant prison wardon must face a lawsuit saying she denied equal protection under the law.
Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Yes, even incarcerated noncitizens are afforded equal protection under the law pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. As evidence, see a decision on Tuesday by a Tennessee federal court that allows Julio Villasana to sue the assistant warden of his prison for not providing enough Spanish-language entertainment.

Villasana is a Mexican citizen currently residing at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a prison that is operated by a private corporation. According to Villasana's complaint, prisoners are allowed to keep personal televisions inside their assigned housing cells and the prison provides access to 34 television channels. Additionally, the prison broadcasts on weekends three or more first-run English-language movies over the prison's closed-circuit TV system.

While incarcerated, Villasana requested Spanish-speaking television stations as well as Spanish-language weekend movies.

He says that Yolanda Pittman, the assistant warden, told him that she would never add "any Mexican stuff" and on another ocassion stated, "If you want Mexican TV, you should go back to Mexico!"

Villasana is representing himself in a case that claims violation of constitutional rights, and under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw had to pay particular scrutiny to whether the claims were frivolous or whether the plaintiff asserted a plausible claim. Unless it's the latter, Villasana would not have the opportunity to move forward in his lawsuit.

Well, Villasana is getting the green light.

Judge Crenshaw refers to a couple of old cases before articulating why Villasana's lawsuit can proceed.

"This Court agrees that inmates do not have a constitutional right to television access," the judge writes. "However, in both Elliot and Webster, unlike in the instant case, neither prisoner-plaintiff alleged specific facts giving rise to an inference that a defendant intentionally discriminated against the prisoner because of his race and/or national origin in failing to provide certain television programming. For these reasons, the Court believes that Elliot and Webster are distinguishable, and that the instant Plaintiff has stated an equal protection claim upon which relief can be granted for purposes of the required PLRA screening… [T]he Court finds that the complaint states a colorable, non-frivolous equal protection claim against Defendant Pittman."

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