When Almost All Your Fellow Inmates Speak Another Language
Illustation by Tyler Boss
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I always knew high school Spanish would come in handy one day. I just didn't think that day would come in a federal prison.
Fact: I am a white woman in my 20s. Three years of Spanish, one semester in college, and one protracted journey into drug addiction led me to this particular juncture. (I am serving a 60-month sentence for conspiracy to distribute heroin.)
Before arriving here at F.C.I. (Federal Correctional Institution) Dublin in Northern California, I already knew its racial composition would be very different from what I was used to in my hometown of Portland—which sees itself as a racially and culturally diverse bastion of tolerance but is actually the whitest major city in America. I was prepared to be in the minority for the first time in my life.
But I never could have predicted how few Americans I would find in an American prison.
Almost as soon as I set foot inside the razor wire, I realized I’d be sharing this controlled space with hundreds of women who have ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) “holds,” meaning ICE can move to deport them upon completion of their sentence. Almost all the women I know are here for the same crime: attempting to cross the border, through a checkpoint and using a U.S.-issued visa, but with drugs concealed in their vehicle.
A lot of these Mexican women routinely crossed the border just to go shopping, they’ve told me. But, precisely because they had a visa, they were eventually targeted by criminal organizations and enticed to smuggle drugs. (Disclaimer: When I say Mexicans, I mean Mexican citizens. In all my time here, I’ve known exactly one Colombian and one Guatemalan.)
These women have never lived in the U.S. and many speak no English at all. But when you share roughly 100 square feet of floor space and a toilet with three other humans, communication is imperative. I hadn’t used my Spanish in years, but on my first night here, I began retrieving it from the depths of my mind.
“Me llamo Morgan,” I said, stumbling to introduce myself to my new cellmate. “Tengo veintiséis años. Cómo te llamas?”
She found this toddler-level Spanish to be rather endearing, though she couldn’t stop laughing at me.
Before arriving here, I’d had a deep fear that prison would make me stupid, with its lack of intellectual stimulation. Now I looked at all the non-English speakers and saw an opportunity to learn. And since it was a financial impossibility to finish my bachelor's degree while incarcerated, I decided becoming fluent in Spanish was in fact the most beneficial thing I could do with my time.
Soon, I had ordered a Spanish-English dictionary and a verb conjugation book, and began to study every day. I would ask to join a group of Mexican women at their table and, although I could barely communicate with them at first, was always welcomed. (Because I am at a women’s prison and not a men’s, with their racially exclusive gangs, the inmates tend not to segregate themselves by skin color or language.)
There was no flowing conversation, just halting speech and long pauses while I feverishly searched for words in my books. Every interaction taught me something new: whether it was taking a shower or microwaving a meal or placing a phone call, it required communication.
Prison is a lesson in scarcity, which means long lines for everything. To get one of the shower stalls, I must ask, “Who’s next in the shower?” But shouting that over the curtain could very well get me no response, since the odds are about 50/50 the person inside doesn’t speak English.
So the first new phrase I learned in prison was, “Quién sigue?” which means, “Who’s next?” That line also got me access to the phone, the microwave, the computer kiosk, the hair straightener and iron. It’s a crucial one around here.
As my Spanish improved, I could suddenly tell who was witty, who was raunchy, who was rude and who was sweet. Finally, I knew who was from Tijuana, Baja, Sinaloa, Guadalajara, and Nayarit. My new friends introduced me to real Mexican food (or at least the prison version of it, including chili and salt on my fruit and lemon juice in my Top Ramen), Spanish-language music, and telenovelas. I downloaded dozens of reggaeton songs onto my mp3 player.
I also concluded that Spanish-language news coverage is far superior to what’s provided by the mainstream American media. It’s more global, with less repetition and fear-mongering.
When Donald Trump got elected, the fear in here was palpable, and Spanish-language media responded. One of the local Mexican radio stations has a regular Q. and A. segment with an immigration attorney in which people desperately ask how to remain in the U.S. There are public service announcements on Spanish-language TV about how to deal with ICE and improve your chances if you’re facing deportation.
Simply put , I’ve learned that we care less about things we have no emotional connection to—that’s just human nature. So learning Spanish has fundamentally changed my worldview: I no longer see the same dichotomy between Americans and Mexicans. People facing deportation are not mere abstractions; they’re the friends and family of my friends. The earthquakes in Mexico, the socioeconomic crisis in Venezuela, the hurricane-induced destruction in Puerto Rico—suddenly these things matter to me. I don’t need a translator to hear their pain.
Prison hasn’t provided me with any worthwhile vocational training or an opportunity to earn a single college credit. But it did teach me Spanish, because I willed it to be so. And as a result, I’m now living a richer and more humane existence.
Millions of people, personalities, pieces of music, poems and literary works are now within my grasp. I've even acquired a taste for banda—which I’d always thought was just polka music with naughty Spanish lyrics. I just finished my first novel in another language.
All thanks to federal prison in 2017.
Morgan Godvin, 28, is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, where she is serving 60 months for conspiracy to distribute heroin.