Interpreting in Jail: Is It Safe?

For today's interpreting topic, we'd like to focus on a very specific topic: interpreting in jail.

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. 


Alina Cincan on April 21, 2015 at 1:24 AM said...

Very good tips!
I did interpret in prison (in the UK) and never had any problems. Like in Judy's case, the inmates were always polite, and I haven't heard of cases where the interpreter was the target of an inmate's anger. And I hope not to hear about such situations either. :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 21, 2015 at 8:39 AM said...

@Alina: Many thanks for commenting and for reading. It's lovely to hear that you have not had any problems either, which seems to be quite representative of what we've heard from other interpreters. There's always a little bit of lingering fear (for me) when I go into locked quarters, but that usually goes away because everything proceeds quite smoothly. Now, let me tell you about the time it took the guard an hour to come get us and I was really hungry....

Alina Cincan on April 21, 2015 at 8:50 AM said...

Well, do tell :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 21, 2015 at 9:07 AM said...

@Alina: Well, the lawyer and I were both starving, and we had to wait for so long that I finally pulled out the granola bar that I had with me. I have good manners, but I wasn't sure about the protocol concerning food from the outside and giving it to inmates, but I offered to share my granola bar with all three of them. The inmate graciously declined (it wasn't the tastiest-looking granola bar), so the attorney and I split it. At some point, he got so tired he put his head on the table and took a little nap while I made small talk with the inmate. It was a long hour, and good thing we didn't have to use the bathroom!

Alina Cincan on April 21, 2015 at 9:30 AM said...

He what? Took a nap? Even if he was very tired, that still sounds odd, considering the circumstances.
Regarding the granola bar, I would have offered to share too. Like you said, it's a matter of good manners.
Thanks for sharing this story with us.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 21, 2015 at 2:27 PM said...

@Alina: It was a very brief nap that he took, if I remember correctly (but it's not very professional; I agree). I think he'd been in trial all week, and it had been a long week. I wish we would receive more instructions from someone at the jail/prison on how to handle certain situations (should I offer the inmate a mint?), but when in doubt, I just rely on my instinct and good manners. That seems to work well most of the time.

Josh Goldberg said...

One of the most difficult depositions I ever interpreted for was inside a county jail. For no other reason than, unbeknownst to me beforehand, I wouldn't be allowed to bring *anything* to drink inside with me. Not even the simple bottle of water that I always have with me (nor was anything provided inside). It was a six hour deposition with no breaks. Add in the travel time from home plus the waiting time to begin, and by the time we finished I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since breakfast, eight or nine hours before. I was *so* dehydrated and headache-y by the time we finished.
I can handle a six hour deposition with no breaks, but at least let me sip a little water along the way.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 29, 2015 at 9:01 AM said...

@Josh: That sounds terrible! It is amazing that they make you do that. You'd think at some point someone would realize that being without water for so long could be detrimental to your health. Judy has been to prison sans water many times, but luckily the assignments were usually short. However, during a longer visit, she once had to ask to go to the bathroom and ended up getting a drink from the sink there because there was no water fountain nor water to be had anywhere else. It didn't taste very good, but it was liquid. There sure is some room for improvement on these working conditions for interpreters in jails. Many thanks for sharing your experiences and we hope this doesn't repeat itself.

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