Blog: Overcoming Language Barriers in Prisons

In this latest blog, Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation explores some of the ways staff in prisons can help to tackle the language barriers faced by speakers of English as a second or additional language.

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

Key sections in this article:

Although a rough estimate suggests that one in ten people in prison speak English as a second or additional language (ESL), data on the languages spoken by people in prison, including whether they can speak, read, or write in English, is not routinely collected. In some prisons, there will be more than 10% of the prison population that use English as a second or additional language.

As no data is collected, the level of need in the criminal justice system is unknown and leads to wider systemic issues faced by speakers of ESL in the system. The blog published in December by the Foundation considered some of the language barriers faced, including the patchy nature of language support, a lack of staff training and the provision of largely monolingual services.

This latest blog looks at some of the solutions and how prisons can tackle these barriers and ensure that speakers of ESL receive the support they need.

Overcoming language barriers

Across the prison estate, there are pockets of excellent practice in the support given to speakers of ESL. Many of these have come from individuals coming up with a simple idea that can have a huge impact. These include ideas such as a pictorial canteen menu, or a badge that identifies which languages are spoken by staff. Another example is a card that ESL speakers can present to staff which outlines their need for, and right to, formal language support and comes with basic instructions for staff on how to access it.

While some issues, such as the quality of interpretation provided by a third-party provider, are systemic and cannot be overcome on an individual-prison level, there are a number of things that prisons can do to address some of the issues faced.

Embedded into the role of all staff

As well as ensuring that a specific team takes the lead on supporting prisoners with little or no English, it also needs to be embedded into the role of all staff. In prisons with greater language diversity among the staff, there is potential to use this, making sure that staff are encouraged to support those with whom they share a language and given the freedom and time to do so.

All staff should be aware of the existence and impact of language barriers, and reception staff and keyworkers (at a minimum) should be aware of the complexities of language proficiency, the factors that can influence it, and how to identify someone facing a language barrier. The Foundation has launched a new training course for staff working in prison or in probation, Prison and probation staff: Communicating with ESL speakers, aimed at providing participants with the knowledge and skills to communicate more effectively with speakers of ESL. Find out more about the Foundation’s training for staff in the criminal justice system.

As much as possible, staff should be encouraged to ‘flag’ when a prisoner speaks ESL on P-NOMIS (the Prison National Offender Management Information System), and to make notes about any specific requests or needs made by the prisoner, such as for language support. Reception staff should be encouraged to screen for speakers of ESL and should be upskilled and empowered to better understand the complexity of language skills and proficiency so as not to miss any potentially vulnerable individuals. The Foundation has created a free Screening Tool, designed to be used by non-specialist staff and is currently looking for staff in prisons to take part in the trial of the tool.

Image of the ESOL Screening Tool for Speaking and Listening(Preview of the ESOL Screening Tool)

The value of peer support

Prisoners often rely on peers or staff to translate information. Peer support has been shown to be an effective system of support, particularly when delivered in a structured and formalised way, underpinned by the support of governors and senior staff.

With all the resource constraints in the system, peer support has the potential to make significant improvements to the experiences of ESL speakers in the prison estate. Empowering prisoners to support each other can help overcome the isolation and disadvantages experienced by speakers of ESL, minimises the risks that come from more informal support arrangements, and can provide opportunities for education and employment for other prisoners.

“[ESL speakers] find it very difficult to approach staff all the time, to verbalise their issues, let alone venting their frustrations – so they approach [other] foreigners like me. Now this has been very difficult during lockdown.”

[Arun – a proficient English speaker who offers peer support to prisoners who speak ESL]

Peer support programmes should be encouraged, formalised, and managed in a way that demonstrates trust, empowering both those who need help and those who offer it while minimising safety and security concerns. The Bell Foundation provided funding to St Giles Trust to develop the accredited qualification in Advice and Guidance (QCF NVQ Level 3) so that it is relevant for people in prison who use English as a second or additional language. During the first year that the qualification was offered it was completed by nine prisoners, who in turn supported between 30 and 50 ESL speakers every week. Learn more about the Peer Advice Project.

Language barriers as an equalities issue

Finally, language barriers are an equalities issue, and a specific responsibility should be given to ensure equal access to information and services for speakers of ESL.

Individuals who speak ESL should have their basic rights and entitlements met, and wherever possible prison staff should be asking what more they can reasonably do to reduce and overcome more everyday barriers, in the same way this is asked for other groups facing equalities or accessibility barriers. Where resources or other constraints mean that written documentation is not translated, extra support to read and understand the information should be given to help overcome this inequality.

It is also key to consider the accessibility of activities and services in the prison and to explore with external providers whether they can do more to increase accessibility for speakers of ESL.

Free guidance and resources

Through the Criminal Justice Programme and the research series, Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System, the Foundation has a range of free tools and resources on offer to support those working with speakers of ESL.

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