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Shifting demographics challenge effective communication
By Sheila Gunderman, Training Coordinator, Virginia Center for Policing Innovation Training
Published: 08/04/2008

People talking1 Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel, from its newsletter, The Correctional Trainer. Thanks goes to editor, Joe Bouchard.

The challenge of overcoming language and cultural-understanding barriers is not new to those managing and working in correctional institutions in the United States. However, it is predicted that in the very near future, cities and counties from coast to coast will experience unprecedented demographic change, which will likewise impact every industry and service provider, including correctional facilities, nationwide.

The Numbers and the Impact

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2005, there were an estimated 42.7 million people of Hispanic origin living in the United States, making Hispanics the nation’s largest ethnic or race minority. As of that date, Hispanics constituted 14% of the nation’s total population (not including the 3.9 million residents of Puerto Rico). It is projected that by July 1, 2050, the Hispanic population in the U.S. will be 102.6 million.

According to this projection, people of Hispanic origin will comprise 24% of the nation’s total population on that date. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group.

Between July 1, 2004 and July 1, 2005, about one of every two people added to the nation’s population were Hispanic. In the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Census 2000 Special Reports” 40% of those Hispanics living in the United States reported speaking English less than “very well.” Correctional facilities must be prepared to meet the ever-evolving needs of those populations they are sworn to serve.

Training, Skill Development and Cultural Understanding

With the Hispanic population in the U.S. increasing at unprecedented rates in nearly every community, the need for Spanish language-acquisition training for corrections officers has never been greater.

Is Spanish training currently part of your organization’s basic academy? If so, how often do officers receive “refresher” courses once they are on the job? Can they communicate verbally with your Hispanic inmates to provide orders, obtain information, or respond to emergency situations?

Ongoing language-acquisition training will not only increase your officers’ communication skills, it will positively contribute to their individual professional development, and most importantly, their own personal safety. A long-term benefit of this increased knowledge and cultural understanding is the solid foundation that is developed for building and maintaining trust among Spanish-speaking inmates.

Feeling free to communicate in one’s native language fosters a strong sense of cultural heritage, which is a tremendous source of comfort and pride to non-English speakers living here in the U.S.; the increased number of officers who are able to communicate in this way, even at a basic level, will greatly influence the respect these inmates have for corrections personnel, which could result in improved cooperation, more open information sharing, as well as overall facility efficiency and effectiveness.

The Virginia Center for Policing Innovation (VCPI), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization who provides training nation-wide, offers a one-week intensive program designed to give non-Spanish-speaking corrections personnel a working knowledge of fundamental Spanish that is applicable to their specific job duties. Since identifying the growing need for Spanish language-acquisition training in Virginia, VCPI has delivered more than 15,000 hours of classroom training to hundreds of law enforcement professionals representing more than sixty-five organizations.

Basic Spanish for corrections personnel begins with an introduction to Hispanic culture that emphasizes the importance of understanding how cultural values effect communication. Throughout the training, officers learn and practice how to pronounce and use basic vocabulary in situations similar to those they might face with Spanish-speaking inmates within a correctional facility.

Instructed by active, sworn law enforcement officers, this highly interactive course introduces participants to the verbal commands involved in collecting information, handling tactical situations, communicating rules and regulations, conducting medical assessments and booking procedures. The training also involves role-playing scenarios that simulate real-world events as a means of incorporating their language skills with their knowledge of Hispanic culture in a manner similar to what they may face in the course of their correctional duties.

For more information on this program, please contact VCPI Training Coordinator, Sheila Gunderman at sgunderman@vcpionline.org or 804-644-0617.


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