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Preparing women in prison for work: Community Interpreting

13th June 2014

We’ve recently finished a really interesting project, working with Drake Hall Prison in Staffordshire to offer a Community Interpreting qualification to women in prison.

The five day Level 2 Award in Preparation to Work in Community Interpreting was delivered by Gateway during May. Drake Hall already offers various vocational training courses through their link with Milton Keynes College, but this is the first opportunity the women will have had to gain an interpreting qualification.

Like the Community Interpreting course that we already run, this is a way for many of the women at Drake Hall to formalise a role that they’ve been doing informally for years. The prison is a designated centre for foreign nationals, so the prisoners include a high number of foreign language speakers.

Why work in prisons?

Gateway specialises in helping people from hard-to-reach communities to function more effectively in society. With the right investment and support, people can overcome all sorts of barriers to lead happier, more productive lives. Working with prisoners to support their rehabilitation by recognising their existing skills, and helping them to learn new ones, is a natural fit for Gateway.

For female prisoners especially, we can see how skills provision could have far-reaching benefits. Many of the women have children and want to be positive role models to them. With skills and qualifications, the women will be able to have a legitimate income and provide for their family. The self-esteem and confidence which comes from being able to do this will have an impact on the whole family.

The main barriers for course attendees in prison are their levels of self esteem and self confidence, which – understandably – can be especially low. Additionally, many of the women at Drake Hall, as foreign nationals, feel that they are stigmatised by other prisoners.

When we first visited Drake Hall, we asked the women to tell us how they felt about the future. Most said that they felt the available options would be extremely limited for them once they left prison. Inevitably, there was a general feeling that no-one will care about them or consider them for a job when they are released. Some have been completely disowned by their family after being convicted and won’t be able to return home to a supportive environment. They spoke about feeling like they are “at the bottom” of society.

We know that it’s common for attendance to drop over the duration of a course at Drake Hall. Usually this is down to a lack of self-esteem and the inability of prisoners to see the potential benefits of training. However, we can see that many of the women at the prison – particularly the foreign nationals – have language skills and the life experience to be good interpreters, so we tried to communicate this as much as possible.

Delivering the course


Course tutor Sarah Clay

Initially, eight women enrolled on the course, but more joined as word spread. Ten women finished the course and all achieved their Level 2.

Course leader Sarah Clay said, “It was a privilege to teach a group of learners who, by the second session, no longer felt nervous or suspicious, but were enthusiastic about learning new knowledge and skills.

“Throughout the course individuals were keen to share their experiences and to listen and learn from the formal teaching as well as each other. We had many ferocious yet productive discussions.

“I was also very impressed with the way that the women supported each other, demonstrating excellent team working skills. All overcame nerves and brought their learning together to perform effectively in an assessed role play, during which they were the interpreter.

“Learners listened excitedly on the last day when the Governor talked about his ideas for how they might utilise their skills within and outside of Drake Hall.”

Nine marked the course delivery as “excellent” and one as “good”. This selection of comments from the evaluation forms at the end of the course showed just how much of a positive impact the training had had:

Hopefully I can one day become a interpreter for someone and I can show off my talent


Everything was useful … not only in the course, in life and resettlement as well


[I hope] to continue with this line of work when I leave prison. I have gained more confidence and my speaking skills will develop as I work professionally on a regular basis


The role plays and scenarios were useful which gave me confidence.


A really good course, very useful and made me feel like my language skills are useful! Can we do the next level?

Paul Newton, Governor of Drake Hall thinks that something like this could make a real difference. “I’m always looking for new ideas. Not only does this give the women a confidence boost by being able to gain a valuable qualification it also makes the most of skills they already have – maybe they just didn’t realise it.

“A wealth of abilities exist in our establishment, so what a great opportunity to sell a positive message about a prison and the resources held inside.”

The future for our Community Interpreting courses

Currently, anyone in Birmingham can apply to do a Gateway course and go onto our books as a qualified Community Interpreter. So in the future, we are hoping to extend the service further afield and employ some of the Drake Hall trainees.

We have also started to have discussions with the prison about developing an online – or call centre based – interpreting service, which would enable remote working. Drake Hall prison already runs a call centre and a distribution centre, so this could be another beneficial addition for them. The prisoners would gain work experience alongside a recognised qualification, whilst the prison would be able to offer enhanced interpreting services internally and commercial services externally.

Equipping women in prison with the tools they need to become productive members of society – practical as well as personal – is a vital service and one which we are really pleased to be able to provide.

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  1. Ann Forletta

    Really good work at Drake Hall prison. Hopefully it’ll bring significant long term benefits for the women who undertook the interpreter course. Congratulations to everyone involved.

  2. Rozy

    Hi everybody,
    Well done to all the ladies who achieved their level 2. I did my role play last Tuesday, I had to do it in Urdu instead of Gujarati which is my mother tongue. I still have to do my Tasks from 8——–. Lovely to read there was a lot of team work, there is a lack of team work where I am doing mine. I have to evaluate my role play, my peer group have given different answers on my areas for development. They think I did not do well, I think I did. Hopefully I too will be able to work in this field after I have passed.

    Best Regards