It came to light today that thirteen prisoners in New South Wales will be forced to use only English in phone calls, visits and written communication, under the order of the NSW Attorney-General Brad Hazzard. Previously, one inmate had been banned from speaking Arabic, but the policy is now being extended. Federal immigration minister Peter Dutton likes what he’s hearing and thinks it’s “a very prudent and timely step” according to the Guardian, despite there being no known specific terrorist threat.

I know that Human Rights aren’t the flavour of the month. To some, they are one of those pesky things that keep spoiling fun parties like locking up kids. Even still, hearing of the attempt to ban certain languages being used by prisoners set off a few alarm bells regarding linguistic rights and the freedom to use whatever damn language you want. Firstly, let’s make it clear that being a prisoner does not mean you forego human rights. But what do various rights conventions that protect Aussies have to say on the matter?

The most relevant convention is possibly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Australia has been party to since 1980. The most relevant articles relating to linguistic rights are Articles 26 and 27 (hat-tip to the Transient Languages and Cultures):

Article 26
All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 27
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language

If correctional services are openly restricting prisoners from using Arabic and other languages, surely that is clearly discrimination on the basis of language (Article 26) and denying them the right to use their own language (Article 27). Luckily for the NSW government, it seems that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t directly enforceable by law in Australia (although it possibly could be in the ACT and Victoria … well, that’s my no-legal-training-but-can-use-Google take on the situation).

But I clearly understand the underlying idea: to protect the public from dangerous and convicted criminals who may be seeking to organise criminal activity while in prison. However, I can’t be convinced that impinging on people’s linguistic rights is a good way to go, nor necessary. Especially where by the Attorney-General’s own admission there is no specific threat that anyone is aware of. And this is where the actions of NSW Correctional Services are just plain lazy more than anything.

Arabic is not a small, minority language. It is the fourth most widely spoken language in Australia after English, Mandarin and Italian. It’s not like Arabic-speaking prisoners are akin to the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Americans defeat the Japanese in World War Two because their relatively obscure language was an unbreakable code. If correctional services would like to know what Arabic-speaking prisoners are saying they can easily have a qualified Arabic-interpreter on hand. Or is it not possible to record conversations or scan letters and then find out what they actually say? I would also like to know why it is apparently impossible to have Arabic-speaking corrections staff who could understand what was going on anyway? (The use of interpreters seems to actually be part of the policy but one wonders why their use isn’t standard practice rather than something a prisoner needs permission for, as though speaking one’s own language a privilege, not a right?)

The benefit of working with other languages and not simply banning them like a 1950s grade two schoolteacher is not just that you protect the linguistic rights that we are all afforded. You would actually develop the capacity for more people to understand, use and professionally interpret and analyse languages like Arabic. This could simultaneously destigmatise the language, increase the capacity of the general population to understand it, and reduce the xenophobia that surrounds it. The possible outcome of the not-lazy, not-1950s-schoolteacher approach would be to reduce the potential for a language to be used in covert and/or illegal activity – not by banning it, but by having more people know about it. And then you’d achieve the original goal of this stupid policy anyway.

So let’s get cleverer. We all have the right to use our own language(s). Other people’s languages are not something to be afraid of or something we should be implicitly taught to fear. Criminal activity can be carried out in any damn language anyway, including English.

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