Namu Pa'i 'Ai

News and Linguistic Sketches on Hawai'i Creole English and Other Pidgins and Creoles

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

ACLU: Threat of Lockdown For Speaking Pidgin

The Associated Press State & Local Wire | link
October 12, 2004
Attorney: Hawaii girls accuse state of lying to them

Seven girls sent from Hawaii's youth prison to a detention center in Utah say they were told Tuesday that the state has no plans to bring them back after two months as promised, according to an attorney who spoke to them.

State officials, including Gov. Linda Lingle, denied the girls would be kept longer than they were told.

"That's not true - absolutely, unequivocally not true," said Sharon Agnew, director of the state Office of Youth Services. "I don't know who from staff they would even be talking to."

Unrelated to the complaints, Lingle plans to visit the girls on Saturday on her way back to Hawaii from a trip to attend the presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz. She said the state had no plans to keep the girls there beyond the end of November.

The girls were sent to Utah two weeks ago to open up more space for overcrowded male inmates at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.

Agnew, who visited them at the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center on Monday, said there may have been some miscommunication.

But Lois Perrin, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said the girls were upset when she spoke to some of them by phone Tuesday because staff members at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility told them they weren't coming back....

She said the ACLU's other main concern was that staff members at the Utah facility weren't being culturally sensitive, noting some of the girls are being threatened with punishment for speaking pidgin.

"They are repeatedly threatened with lockdown," Perrin said. Agnew said she didn't believe that to be the case. She said the girls were more likely punished because of their behavior.

"They're asking the girls to participate or behave just like any other resident," Agnew said. "They're being asked to uphold the facilities' rules. I wouldn't think that they would be locking them down for speaking pidgin."

Blake Chard, director of Utah Juvenile Justice Services, said the girls were disruptive at first because they weren't accustomed to the Utah center's treatment environment.

Does anyone know more about this case? If the complaint is true, it's quite disturbing how speaking in a way that comes most naturally is construed as an act of insubordination worthy of punishment. However, it is not clear to me from this very brief description how Pidgin came to be singled out as the basis for the discrimination -- whether the girls inferred it from context or whether staff members had made direct statements about their language. It is interesting that Agnew simply regards the matter as "not obeying the rules," but there is a huge grey area in the subtleties of interpersonal communication, especially if it includes interlocutors wholly unfamiliar with another's way of speaking. If the "rules" include "treat the staff with respect," and if the staff members thought the girls were, say, "sassy" or disrespectful for using a certain tone of voice with them when they were simply speaking according to their usual HCE intonation patterns, the girls could have easily inferred (correctly) that their accent was being used against them and the staff members could have inferred (incorrectly) that the girls were breaking the rules by being disrespectful. Without more information, it is impossible to say much more.