The Rising Need for Bilingual Corrections Officers

Why you should care

A rising number of Latino inmates could alter the landscape of the criminal justice system.

What would you say if someone told you that you had a 44 percent chance of being arrested by the time you reached your early 20s?

What if you’re a correctional officer running a cell block and everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand?

That’s the world in which Hispanic males in America live, according to a recent study published in the journal Crime & Delinquency.

And that’s not all. Hispanic men are four times as likely as non-Hispanic white men to go to prison at some point in their lives. These statistics may even be underrepresenting Hispanic incarceration because of how the ”Hispanic” label is sometimes applied as an ethnicity and not as a race, so Hispanics/Latinos are sometimes lumped in with other numbers. Additionally, these stats often don’t take into account detention centers that hold undocumented immigrants.

Does this mean Latinos are committing more crime than non-Hispanics? Not necessarily — as has been argued in many other places, racism and the U.S. criminal justice system are not strangers — but regardless of the crime committed or whether justice was served, the bare demographic facts have serious implications for the officers who run prisons, as well as for our faith in the fairness of our correctional system.

To begin with, personnel in charge of running prisons and jails with large populations of Hispanic inmates must comprender what the inmates are saying.

Woman in foreground inside prison

Inside Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.

Source Rich Pedroncelli/Corbis

”There is a demand now really in a lot of places for officers who are bilingual,” explains Ken Kerle, former managing editor of the American Jail Association and the author of a number of books about jails. ”What if you’re a correctional officer running a cell block and everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand? You have to have people linguistically capable of understanding what they are talking about, particularly in an institution.”

Nearly 44% of Hispanic males have been arrested by age 23.

This is especially true for states like Texas, Arizona and California. But that doesn’t mean they are the only ones who value bilingual corrections officers. Kerle adds, “Even here in Kansas, our Hispanic population continues to grow.”

Robert Hurst, the public information officer at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says it is “absolutely” helpful for officer safety if officers are bilingual. Hurst says his team is always looking for skilled bilingual employees, throughout the entire department.

Were monolingual inmates treated justly? Were they given the full version of their rights, and did they understand them?

Bilingual personnel are not only helpful as translators in the prison or jail institution, but also for the inmates themselves, particularly monolingual inmates.

As Dave Brotherton, a sociology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, points out, there is a huge cultural difference between first- and second-generation Latinos. The bicultural elements that many bilingual personnel bring to the table are sometimes just as important as the words they can discern. Arthur Wallenstein, the director of Montgomery County Maryland Department of Corrections, says the “cross-cultural skills” an officer can bring are “very valuable.”

Correctional officer blurred in foreground with tower seen in background

The controversial Tent City jail in Phoenix

Source Joshua Lott/Corbis

Wallenstein adds that it’s not just about an increase in the incarceration of Hispanics, but also a growing foreign-born population in the U.S., some of whom are entering the correctional system. ”The jail population is no longer a homogenous, one-dimensional group. It is highly diverse; there are numerous ethnic nationalities involved and a considerable number of linguistic skills. Anything that improves communication in the correctional environment is a step forward.” For example, in addition to Spanish, he values staff who can speak Amharic, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese.

The need for bilingual personnel is clear, and it expands beyond corrections officers to the question of justice for monolingual inmates. Were they given the full version of their rights and did they understand them? Can they adequately communicate with police or with their lawyer? Are there health and human services staff on hand who speak the language commonly found in the geographic area they service? Do the translators helping with interrogation have any biases that affect interpretation?

The United States has always been a melting pot, and that is becoming more and more clear every day. Now the criminal justice system will have to play catch-up with the rapidly changing dynamics of the prison population, one language at a time.

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