Most certified or registered court interpreters will at some point find themselves inside the walls of a jail, detention center, prison, juvenile detention facility, etc. Of course, all interpreters have the option of turning down the assignment. If you accept it, here are a few things to keep in mind that Judy has learned from her experiences in Nevada detention centers:
- You will be locked inside a small room with the defendant and his/her attorney (or other third party). The defendant will usually not be handcuffed, and if you want to leave the room at any point, you have to ring a bell for a guard to come get you. These days, jails and prisons are so overstaffed that this usually takes a long time, so that's not good in case of an emergency. While attorneys have anecdotally told Judy about some scary situations with inmates, we have yet to hear of an incident involving an interpreter, but that certainly doesn't mean it hasn't happened or it won't happen. If you don't like being locked inside small rooms without a cell phone (you might have to leave it in your car) or cell phone reception (if you take it inside), you might want to turn down these assignments.
- Being female. Most interpreters are female, and statistically, the vast majority if inmates are male, and they have very limited contact with women. Not surprisingly, females (attorneys, social workers, officers, interpreters) are a welcome sight, but be sure to dress conservatively. Avoid low-cut tops, short skirts, high heels, flashy jewelry, large earrings. Keep it very simple and professional, and dress more conservatively than you would usually do.
- Behavior. Judy has never had an issue with an inmate at all, and every single one of them has been polite. Most of them even jump up when she and the attorney enter the room and offer her the chair (many rooms only have two chairs, so a guard will have to get a second one). Many inmates will perceive the interpreter not as a neutral party that she or he is, but will incorrectly view the interpreter as an advocate. Of course court interpreters are not advocates, but we have yet to see an inmate direct anger towards an interpreter. However, keep in mind that you might be the bearer of bad news: delayed trials, denial of a plea bargain, uncooperative witnesses, an attorney who is withdrawing from the case.
- Information. Whenever, possible, ask the attorney (or the party for whom you will be interpreting) what the purpose of the visit is so you can prepare yourself both personally and mentally. All visits usually involve quite a bit of sight interpreting of official documents from English into Spanish.
So: is it safe? In general, we would say that yes, it is safe, but just because there are a lot of guards with guns around you doesn't mean that you will be protected at all times. There is always risk with any kind of assignment in a locked facility, so keep that in mind before you accept an assignment behind bars,
We'd love to hear from other colleagues who have experience interpreting in jails or prisons--just leave a comment below.