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Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs

Introduction

Braille is a code that people who are blind use to read and write. It was devised in 1824 by Louis Braille — a Frenchman who was blind — and it is currently used around the world with hundreds of languages.

Producing braille in correctional settings is not a new concept. Transcribing print into braille is labor intensive and requires focus and attention to detail, lending itself well to the prison setting. Braille production facilities in prisons can be traced back to Norway in the early 20th century, and much of the braille available today in Great Britain is produced in prisons.

The oldest known prison braille program in the U.S. was established in Michigan in 1962. Now called the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund (MBTF), the program began with one man learning braille in his cell. Today, MBTF is a non- profit business housed in its own building on the grounds of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan. The operation employs 47 men.

While prison braille programs are not new in the U.S. correctional system, it is only in recent years that professionals working with these programs have established lines of communication and begun collaborating to address common challenges and recognize individual program and collective accomplishments. The National Prison Braille Network was launched in 2001 under the auspices of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). There are currently 36 known programs in the country, most of which participate in the national network.

According to a 1994 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (the most recent study available), 67.5% of all inmates in the U.S. were rearrested within three years of release. And 46.9% were reconvicted.

Although nationwide data on the recidivism rates of offenders who have participated in prison braille programs has not yet been gathered, anecdotal reports indicate that an estimated 0%-3% of offenders who participated in a prison braille program for at least two years and were released have returned to prison.

Growing Interest, Growing Need

Prison braille programs have begun to attract attention nationwide in recent years. “These programs have proven to benefit everyone involved,” said Tuck Tinsley, President of the American Printing House for the Blind. “People who are blind — especially students — are receiving more high quality braille materials. Inmates are gaining valuable work skills as they prepare for reentry. Vision professionals are building a network of highly qualified transcribers, making them better able to fulfill their obligation of ensuring that people who are blind have the written materials they need in accessible media. Corrections officials are finding that prison braille programs promote offender rehabilitation and prepare them for successful careers following release from prison.”

These guidelines were compiled by the National Prison Braille Network in response to increasing requests for detailed information on prison braille programs — from media, and from vision and corrections professionals eager to support programs that effectively meet the unique needs of the population they serve. As the need for braille materials in the U.S. grows, organizations serving the blind and visually impaired are searching for cost efficient ways to produce braille as they leverage limited funds. Correctional systems are supporting and promoting effective rehabilitation programs that help reduce our nation’s high rate of recidivism. Prison officials are eager to adopt programs that teach offenders new patterns of living, along with marketable job skills.

Using These Guidelines

One of the challenges of producing guidelines for starting and operating prison braille programs is the underlying fact that there is no set organizational pattern that must be followed. Each of the 36 programs operating today is unique to the prison in which it is housed and the laws governing that institution. Programs vary in size, scope, origin, partnering organizations, and staffing structure, among many other characteristics. For that reason, readers are advised to use information presented when appropriate, and adapt it to meet their specific situation as needed.

For detailed information on each of the programs currently in operation, readers are encouraged to access a companion publication: Prison Braille Program Directory, also published by APH in 2009. In addition to program descriptions, this directory provides contact information for professionals working with each program. Most people working with prison braille programs are eager to share their expertise and enthusiasm with others.

In addition to providing information on how to start and operate prison braille programs, this booket offers insight on why these programs should be considered as effective programs to both produce braille and rehabilitate offenders. Throughout the guidelines, sections titled “In Their Own Words…” contain direct quotes from inmates working in prison braille programs, and from both vision and corrections staff working with programs in a supervisory capacity. There is no better way to convey the impact of these programs than through the voices of those directly involved. I sincerely thank the inmate transcribers who were willing to share with readers of these guidelines their experience and thoughts on the impact that transcribing braille is having on their lives and their plans for the future.

Nancy Lacewell
Director, Government and Community Affairs
Coordinator, National Prison Braille Network
American Printing House for the Blind
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Access National Prison Braille Network publications electronically by visiting these pages:

Braille copies of these publications (produced by KCI Braille Services, Pewee Valley, KY) are available from APH.

Contact:
Rebecca Snider at email hidden; JavaScript is required, 502-899-2356, or 800-223-1839, ext. 356.


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