Report recommends providing language support training to UK prisoners

The Bell Foundation, a UK-based charity organization specializing in language education, has published a report highlighting the need for better language access services in the UK’s criminal justice system.

Of particular interest is the organization’s finding that several prisoners currently serve as impromptu interpreters or language brokers for their non-English speaking peers, due to a lack of professional interpreters on-call. While the organization principally recommends that prisons within the UK do a better job of providing professional language services for non-English speaking prisoners, the organization also suggests that these peer language support providers have access to more formal training. 

According to the report, which the organization published in March, the report is one of the first in-depth looks at language barriers in the UK’s criminal justice system.

“There are no robust data on the scale of language needs and the range of different languages spoken by those in contact with the criminal justice system,” the researchers write. “This information is not collated routinely by criminal justice agencies in an easily retrievable form. … This study had to rely on flawed proxy measures, to glean even rough estimates of numbers of speakers of ESL in the criminal justice system.”

According to the report, more than 100,000 requests were made for interpretation services in the year leading up to March 2020 — a large percentage of these requests went uncompleted. For example, 20,552 requests for Polish interpreting were made and just 14% were actually completed. As a result, inmates often take to providing language support for each other during everyday activities and non-confidential interactions with officers.

In the report, the organization includes several case studies, based on interviews with inmates who have struggled with language access or provided it themselves. In one case study, the report details the experience of a prisoner who served as an impromptu interpreter and struggled to gain the trust of the officers with whom she was working. The inmate, referred to in the report as “Shelly,” noted that she requested to provide language support to inmates of a similar cultural and linguistic background as her — it took four months for her request to be approved.

“Once I was allowed to be an interpreter for women from Pakistan, India, (and) Bangladesh, then I had to try and work out the best way of communicating with the officer being there, me being the interpreter, then the fellow prisoner that needed the help,” Shelly said. “It was just a vicious circle because obviously the officers have to trust me enough to be able to give them the information that this prisoner is giving or wanting to know.”

Currently, these attempts to provide peer language support are fairly informal — the Bell Foundation recommends that prisoners who speak more than one language be allowed to receive more formal training, so that they can provide better support to their peers. Of course, this solution is not a be-all-end-all — the Bell Foundation notes that peer interpreters should only aid non-English speaking prisoners with day-to-day activities and interactions with prison staff, rather than legal and/or health-related matters.

“There is clearly traction in exploring how to further develop peer-led support for interpretation and translation,” the report reads. “This should never replace access to professional interpretation for dealing with legal or confidential health matters but should take into account the fact that informal dependence on fellow prisoners for day-to-day language support is already a fact of prison life.”

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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