Why you need bilingual corrections officers

99% of our job as corrections professionals is to communicate effectively with staff and inmates – this means overcoming the language barrier


I've always wanted to learn a second language. I studied both Spanish and French in school. I wasn't very good at it, unlike my brother who could hear foreign words and pick them up immediately. I just didn’t get that gene. My mother-in-law speaks fluent German and my family heritage is Hungarian. I can order a beer in several languages, ask for the bathroom or find an ATM – but meaningful conversation? Not so much. Like many Americans, I never learned a second language.

I understand slang and can speak gang lingo from my prison experiences. I use acronyms that no one understands and I have a plethora of cuss words "just in case." I can text my teenagers and read their "shortcuts" LOL, SMH, ROTFL. But I can't speak Spanish.

I have never felt more alienated than when I recently took over as warden of a facility with a mostly Hispanic population (about 80 percent). I felt like I had walked into the twilight zone and I couldn’t understand what the inmates were saying, and they couldn’t understand me. The first couple of weeks, I walked around with someone I knew was bilingual so I didn’t feel out of place. But this is my prison, and frankly, I prefer to walk alone. I enjoy interacting with the inmates and finding out what's going on out on the compound. The language barrier makes it very difficult. Imagine walking up to a group of inmates and having no idea what their discussion is about, or working in a dorm and not being able to "sense" the climate.

In a recent article published in Crime and Delinquency, "The Rising Need for Bilingual Corrections Officers", L. O'Neil discusses the increase in Hispanic inmates in this country and the need for officers (and wardens) who speak their language.

 According to the U.S. Sentencing commission, in 2011, Hispanics reached a new milestone for the first time, making up the majority all federal felony offenders. Hispanics comprised 50.3 percent of all people sentenced in that year, blacks 19.7 percent and whites 26.4 percent. Nearly 1 in 3 or 32 percent of persons held in federal prisons is Hispanic.

"Hispanic men are four times as likely as non-Hispanic white men to go to prison at some point in their lives (O'Neil, 2014).” Forty four percent of Hispanic men have been arrested by the age of 23. This, coupled with the fact that the population is growing, makes bilingual staff a necessity. Although most prevalent in California, Texas and Arizona, we find Hispanic inmates nationwide. If we can't speak their language and understand their culture, how can we adequately meet their needs?

Some might disagree and say "If they're in the United States, they need to speak English." I disagree. Being open to different cultures is what makes the United States a great place to live and work. We should all strive to communicate better and to understand and celebrate the cultural differences amongst both staff and inmates. Ninety-nine percent of our job as corrections professionals is to communicate effectively with staff and inmates – this means attempting to overcome the language barrier.

I've picked up a few words in my first month, and keep a Spanish book on my desk. I listen carefully and try to figure out what they’re talking about – sometimes I figure out just enough to get into trouble. I have always taken pride in my ability to "read" people as well but this language thing has me all messed up. The language barrier makes it difficult to read how an inmate is saying what he's saying and that matters. Historically, I have been skilled at identifying and understanding those who suffer from mental illness but the cultural differences and the language has provided a barrier to that as well.

Corrections as a profession has never been as diverse. Staff needs to be open to different cultures and to learning new languages in order to provide safe and secure facilities. I know my pledge is to speak the language well enough to communicate with those in my care and to understand the Latin culture and the nuances of it so I will be able to an efficient and effective warden.
 

Sources:

O'Neil, L. (2014). The Rising Need for Bilingual Corrections Officers Crime and Delinquency, February 7, 2014.

United States Sentencing Commission. www.sentencingproject.org retrieved April 15, 2014. 

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