Blog: Language Barriers in Prison

In this latest blog, Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation considers the language barriers faced in prisons, drawing upon the ground-breaking research published by the Foundation earlier this year, and highlighting some of the free resources available.

This blog has been adapted from an article that appeared in Independent Monitor in July 2022.

Key sections in this article:

Prisoners who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL) are often invisible, isolated, disempowered and disadvantaged. This was one of the stark findings from the research, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, conducted by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London, the Centre for Justice Innovation and Victim Support, and funded by the Foundation.

The research found that these prisoners often face significant everyday challenges, and their specific needs are often overlooked, due to a lack of data and of understanding of the complexities of language skills and proficiency, added to the challenges of the prison environment.

Whilst speakers of ESL in prison have certain rights and entitlements to support, in practice these are often not in place or are insufficient to overcome barriers to accessing more than just basic information. This blog considers some of these barriers in greater depth and highlights some of the free resources created as part of this research for staff and for ESOL tutors working in prison or in probation.

Lack of routine data collection

One of the key challenges is that no one knows how many people in prison speak ESL, as this data is not routinely collected or recorded. Proxies such as the number of Foreign National Prisoners (FNPs) are not accurate, due to many FNPs being English language speakers and some ESL speakers having British nationality. A rough estimate suggests that about 10% of the overall prison population speaks ESL and of course in some prisons this will be much higher.

In reality, it is very easy for speakers of ESL to ‘fall between the cracks’.

“It is hard to put yourself in their position, but the best way to look at it is: What would it be like if you were in a foreign country, and you can’t speak the language? You can’t understand the officers. It becomes a barrier because there is massive risk of falling into an abyss, where they go into the background and they kind of disappear and you don’t see them, and they might get forgotten about.”

[Prison Officer]

While some staff may identify someone with very little or no English and arrange support, language screening is not routinely conducted on arrival across the prison estate.  Many prisoners also feel the need to hide their lack of understanding of English due to fears of prejudice and discrimination, or mistrust of the system. This means that language needs are not always identified at reception. Screening for language needs, and upskilling reception staff, is therefore key. The Foundation has created a free Screening Tool which can be used by non-specialist staff to help screen for English language proficiency.

Staff capacity to support language diversity

Navigating the complex prison system, even attempting something as simple as making an appointment with a specific service, can involve a lot of procedural knowledge. It also often involves sufficient literacy and English language proficiency to complete an application form. Across the prison population, it is estimated that on entry 57% of people struggle to read.[i] This complexity and confusion in navigating the regime can be exacerbated for speakers of ESL, creating additional everyday barriers to engaging with the regime.

“To have an interpreter, you have to write an application, which is basically an A4 piece of paper. You put your details in at the top and then there is a square, that you can put in whatever it is that you would like to ask for. So, you can imagine that these women firstly don’t understand English and don’t know what an application is, and being told repeatedly by officers and governors and whoever else “you need to fill out an application”. So the issue here is that obviously, if you can’t speak English and you don’t understand it, how on earth are you then meant to put an application in?”

[Shelley – an ESL speaker who has served time in prison]

Many staff in the prison estate recognise the impact of language barriers for prisoners, but do not have the necessary resources or time to help reduce or overcome barriers. Evidence shows that staff sometimes worry about causing offence by offering language support, and prisoners often will not or cannot ask for help.

Basic training for all staff in understanding the nuances of language, and in skills that can help break down communication barriers, can make a huge difference in the support that prisoners receive. As part of the Criminal Justice Programme, the Foundation has developed a new training course for staff working in prison/probation, with the aim of providing participants with the skills and tools to support speakers of ESL. The Foundation has also published a comprehensive guide on the rights and entitlements of speakers of ESL in contact with the criminal justice system (CJS).

Challenge of monolingual services in the CJS

Speakers of ESL are further disadvantaged by barriers to accessing services, activities, and interventions even once they are able to understand what is available. Despite increasing language diversity in the UK, services provided in prisons are still largely monolingual, with rehabilitative and other interventions often requiring a high level of English to participate. This disadvantages speakers of ESL every day, but also has particular significance when it comes to sentence planning. For example, if a behavioural programme is required for a prisoner to progress through their sentence plan but that programme is only available in English, the prisoner is entirely blocked from progressing through their sentence plan and receiving the support that could make the difference to their rehabilitation journey.

Whilst some language support services are available, feedback on their use and success is mixed. Staff are generally aware of the existence of these services, and of prisoners’ rights to access them, but report logistical difficulties in doing so.

Free resources and guidance

The findings from Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating the challenges experienced by speakers of ESL in contact with the criminal justice system, and the critical need to ensure that appropriate support is in place – for those in prison, but also for victims, witnesses, suspects and defendants, which we will discuss in a separate blog.

As part of this research, the Foundation published a number of free tools and guidance documents. To explore the research and download the Foundation’s free resources, please use the following links.

The next blog in the series, Overcoming Language Barriers in Prison, will be published soon, looking at the ways staff in prisons can help to tackle the language barriers faced by speakers of ESL.

[i] Data published by the Ministry of Justice shows that 57% of adult prisoners taking initial assessments had literacy levels below that expected of an 11-year-old – Shannon Trust – Shannon Trust and Storybook Dads helping to break the cycle of low literacy.


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