Dressing for Prison

If you think getting dressed in the morning is difficult for a variety of reasons, such as not having anything decent to wear, feeling less-than-thin, or running late, then we'd like to introduce you to a scenario that makes things even more complicated: dressing for prison if you are an interpreter.

As a court-certified Spanish interpreter in Vegas, Judy has all sorts of interpreting assignments in a wide variety of places, and not all are fancy and nice, even though some of them are: think well-appointed conference rooms at top law firms with expensive chairs and lovely espresso machines. Once in a while, Judy gets up in the morning and gets dressed to go interpret in either jail or prison around the state. Here are her tips for getting it right in prison in terms of both dress and behavior, especially if you are a woman (we have little insight into how males should dress). We hope the information below helps you if you ever have an interpreting assignment at a jail or prison. Depending on the jurisdiction, only court-certified interpreters are allowed to interpret in these settings, and that's a good thing because you really need some training and solid legal background. In terms of difficulty, these assignments can be quite challenging and usually involve a lot of sight translation.


  • Dress conservatively. This might be a non-brainer, but I see plenty of attorneys, social workers, clinical psychologists and other professional women who sometimes forget this and wear low-cut blouses, high heels and silk blouses. Prison or jail is not a good place to show off your figure. Most of the inmates with whom you will be dealing will be male, and while I am not alleging anything, you better be conservative. Wear opaque pantyhose or tights if you are wearing a skirt. If you are wearing pants, make sure they are not too tight. Choose a conservative jacket that fits you well, and if you are showing a bit too much cleavage, use a scarf, which looks nice and can be taken off later. Avoid high heels: you might have to walk a bit, and the sound of high heels on concrete floors is much louder than you think. In general, try to avoid calling too much attention to yourself. I don't wear any long necklaces nor earrings and try to keep jewelry to a minimum. I wear a simple gold wedding band and I usually keep my watch, the only truly expensive item, in the car or leave it at home. Avoid zippers, as they will surely set off the metal detector. Don't use belts if you can avoid them.
  • Don't bring anything dangerous. Obviously, you don't want to go into the facility armed (I don't have a gun, so that's a non-issue for me), but most facilities also don't allow things that you might consider harmless. Inmates can make weapons out of all sorts of things, so you might have to sign a disclaimer that you are not bringing in paper clips, pencils, food, water (yes, that's too bad if you are thirsty after talking for four hours), medications (leave them in the car), and yes, cell phones. Prisons and jails are pretty serious places, so if you don't like going through metal detectors, surrendering your ID at the front desk and being searched, then perhaps you should decline an assignment that takes you into a locked facility.
  • Locked rooms. You will be locked into an enclosed space with the inmate, who is traditionally not handcuffed. The other person(s) in the room might be an attorney, clinical psychologist or a caseworker. Prison/jail guards will be just outside the room, but the facilities are so understaffed these days that you might have to wait a while after you buzz the guide (via a button) because the meeting is over and you want to leave. In one city jail, the attorney and I waited in the room, with the inmate, for two hours. Luckily, the city jail doesn't have anything against bringing in snacks, so I munched on a granola bar. I wasn't sure about food-sharing protocol with an inmate, so I ate the whole granola bar myself and felt bad, as I've got good manners. 
  • Depressing. Going to jail or to prison is not for the faint of heart, so you must be prepared for a mentally draining and emotionally challenging situation. In federal prison, people are usually locked up for quite a while, but county and/or city jails tend to house those with shorter sentences. Some of the folks you talk to might not have seen the sun for years, and that's tough to deal with. That said, I'd say 99% of the inmates I've interpreted for (all male) have been very well behaved and very polite, but you can sense their desperation and their anger, and that can be heartbreaking. Other inmates are in relatively good spirits, such as a young man for whom I interpreted recently. He had movie-star good looks, an incredibly sunny disposition, and I realized he was significantly younger than I was (he was 23). In terms of shaking hands, I usually observe what the other people do and then follow suit. In general, you are to shake the inmate's hands. No one has behaved inappropriately. 
What about you, fellow interpreters? What information would you add to this list? We'd love to hear from you and I wish I'd had information about how things work at a prison before I had my first assignment there!


5 comments:

Lidia Carney on March 26, 2013 at 3:39 AM said...

Hi girls,
really liked your article. Funnily enough, I was interpreting in prison yesterday and I agree fully with the tips you wrote, I do it myself. Just trying to be discrete is the best thing possible in that environment. Well done girls!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 26, 2013 at 1:24 PM said...

@Lidia: Thanks for your nice comment; great to hear that you enjoyed the article. Yes, discreet is the name of the game in prison/jail, etc. for sure!

Tim Windhof on March 28, 2013 at 10:21 AM said...

Hey Judy, I am not an interpreter and thus have a question about your post: If you get stuck for two hours in a prison room, do you get paid for that time at all?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 2, 2013 at 10:21 AM said...

@Tim: Thanks for commenting. Excellent point indeed. The payment structure depends on the arrangement with the client. In my case, my time starts when I arrive at the prison/jail at the pre-arranged time (I arrive early, but there is no charge for that) and the project is considered finalized when I leave the building. So yes, in that case, I did get paid for the time, but it wasn't much fun!

Jana on April 11, 2013 at 4:03 PM said...

Hi, nice post, I like the bit about the granola bar - very amusing :-) I have interpreted at a prison only once so far. The reason I haven't done it since is mainly because the agency took four months to pay my invoice and they seem to have the monopoly over interpreting assignments in this particular prison :-) I actually wrote a blog post about my first prison interpreting job some time ago. You're welcome to read it on my website. http://www.czechenglishtranslator.co.uk/czech-translator/my-first-prison-interpreting-job/
Enjoyed it but I think I'll stick to translating, much less nerve-wracking.

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