Without English, Inmate Was Trapped
Monday, April 10, 2006
Ramiro Games figured he wouldn't spend much time locked up after Prince George's County police stormed into a Langley Park apartment where he was playing cards on Sept. 30 and arrested him and four other men on cocaine charges.
But because he doesn't speak English, Games, 46, a Guatemalan immigrant laborer, spent nearly six months in jail without going to trial. He said he was unable to alert anyone in the justice system that his case was lingering.
For nearly five months, Games was charged with only simple possession of cocaine, a misdemeanor that often results in probation or a few days in jail.
Games was represented by the county public defender's office, but no lawyer ever met with him. The office has only one Spanish-speaking intake worker and no fully bilingual attorney, although an estimated 15 percent of its caseload involves those who speak only Spanish.
Finally, on March 17, Games was released after a county Department of Corrections employee was tipped off by another inmate about Games's plight and flagged the case for a Prince George's judge, who engineered a jailbreak of sorts.
Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia had Games plead guilty to the cocaine possession charge to get him out of jail, even though Games speaks no English, had no attorney or interpreter and did not understand what he was pleading guilty to.
"He didn't have any idea what he was doing, and I didn't give a damn," Femia said in an interview. "Our system is a Gordian knot, and I cut it. My object in this case was not criminal justice. My object was to get him the hell out of jail."
Informed of the case by The Washington Post, Prince George's public defender Brian C. Denton acknowledged that his office should have done more to represent Games. "This doesn't happen without the language barrier," said Denton, who took over the job in November. "It's our job to look out for these people. We've got to do better."
In an interview conducted in Spanish last week, Games said he didn't know he was pleading guilty to cocaine possession in Femia's courtroom. "I didn't understand," he said.
Why did he plead guilty? "I was guilty -- of being in the apartment," Games said. "I didn't know there were drugs in the apartment."
Femia sentenced Games to 10 days in jail, gave him credit for time served and ordered him released.
Asked why he didn't speak up about his long time in jail, Games shrugged and said: "I don't speak English. Who would I talk to?"