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Increasing Need for Braille | Prison Braille Programs Today | Inmate Transcribers | Key Challenges | Rehabilitative Value | Recidivism and Employment After Prison | Transcribing "On The Outside" | Joining Forces | KCI Braille Services | Prison Braille Programs Across the Nation
Inmates across the country are learning to produce braille materials for people who are blind.
This unique educational and training opportunity provides inmates with job skills and problem-solving experience, preparing them for useful employment upon reentry into society. Their time is spent productively, they give back to society for the crimes they have committed, and opportunities for future employment are created that many never imagined possible. Research indicates that simply because the inmates are involved in education and vocational training while incarcerated, the likelihood that they will return to prison once released is reduced.1
Most importantly, inmates are providing quality braille materials for people who need them -- particularly for students who are blind.
There is a critical shortage of braille transcribers across the U.S. today. Federal law mandates that all students have access to appropriate educational materials. However, for students who are blind this is not always possible. The time and expense involved in braille production, the level of expertise needed to produce quality textbooks, and the transcriber shortage combine to create serious challenges for braille suppliers.
A concerted nationwide effort is being made throughout the field of blindness to ensure that blind students receive their textbooks at the same time as their sighted peers. Prison braille programs are offering part of the solution through the creation of unique partnerships between corrections facilities and braille providers.
We are just beginning to learn about prison braille programs across the country, and this report shares initial information gathered. It provides a "snapshot" of programs identified through an APH survey conducted in 2002, and is no doubt incomplete. If you know of braille production programs in corrections facilities that are not included in this report, please contact us with that information. Perhaps this report will be the first chapter of many.
Director of Government and Community Affairs
American Printing House for the Blind
It is estimated that there are about 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States today, and this number is growing. Medical advances at both ends of the age spectrum have inadvertently resulted in an increased incidence of blindness. Premature babies are being saved but can face lifelong disabilities, including visual impairments. Older adults are living longer and many develop degenerative eye diseases.
According to a 2002 report by Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes for Health, many more Americans are facing blindness today than ever before. The number of blind people in the U.S. is expected to double over the next 30 years as the baby boomer generation ages.2
The U.S. Department of Education currently serves approximately 94,000 blind and visually impaired students (K-12) across the country through special education programs. In 2002, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) registered 57,148 blind or visually impaired students eligible to receive adapted educational materials through the APH Federal Quota Program.
Unfortunately, current braille production capability in the U.S. is unable to keep pace with the increasing demand for braille. Historically, the majority of braille transcription has been provided by volunteers -- usually parents of blind children. This generation of volunteers is quickly disappearing.
There has also been a significant shift in the educational environment of blind students over the past few decades. While the vast majority of blind students were educated in residential schools prior to the 1960s, the inclusion of students with disabilities in the regular classroom has reversed this trend. Today, about 90% of blind students are educated in their local schools.
Combining these demographics with the practice of selecting textbooks at the local level means that it is increasingly difficult to provide every blind child with every textbook he or she needs at the same time as his or her sighted peers. It is a federal mandate that every child have access to educational materials needed, as established by the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by President Bush in January 2002.
According to a national survey conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in 20003, there is a critical shortage of braille textbook transcribers across the United States. The survey indicated that 375 additional transcribers were needed in 2000 to meet the need for braille textbooks for blind students. Further, the survey estimates that by 2005, 750 more transcribers will be needed, and by 2010 the need jumps to over 1,000 additional braille transcribers.
One of the key environments in which the increasing need for braille is being met is in prisons across the country where braille transcriber training programs are being established. Learning braille codes and formats to become a proficient transcriber takes considerable time and focused effort -- ingredients that are readily available in the prison setting. Inmates in prison braille programs receive educational and vocational training, and are able to give back to the community by producing braille materials for people who are blind. Ultimately, it is those who are blind -- particularly students -- who benefit from the dedicated work of inmates learning and producing braille.
According to a survey conducted by the American Printing House for the Blind in 20024, there are currently 23 braille production programs operating in correctional facilities across the United States. Although the programs share common goals, each reflects its own unique characteristics based on the security level, population served, and management priorities of the prison in which it is housed. Three (3) of the facilities are under federal jurisdiction, and 20 are state-operated. Four (4) are female facilities and 19 are male.
More than 1,200 inmates have participated in braille programs across the U.S. since the first program began in 1962. Today there are about 365 inmates working in the 23 active programs. Individual programs have as few as 3 inmates and as many as 40, with the average being about 12.
The oldest known prison braille program in the U.S. is the Michigan Braille Transcription Fund (MBTF), begun in 1962 with one inmate learning braille in his cell. That program is now one of the largest in the country, employing 35 men and producing over 2,000 braille titles each year. An incorporated 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, MBTF occupies its own building on the grounds of the Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan.
How individual braille programs were initiated and under what auspices they operate has a tremendous impact on the goals of each program. Of the 23 programs currently operating, 8 are programs operated solely by prison educational or vocational training departments. These programs have as primary goals educating inmates and providing them with necessary job skills. Braille production is generally considered a community service, and there is either minimal or no charge to the braille customers. Funding is provided primarily through government programs and private sector contributions.
Six (6) of the 23 programs are operated solely by correctional industries and, as such, are revenue producing businesses. While it is important to these programs that inmates gain educational and job training skills, it is also important that the programs generate enough income to at least become self-supporting. Run as small businesses, correctional industry braille programs establish fee structures and billing cycles. They are driven to produce and distribute as much quality braille as possible.
Prison educational/vocational programs and corrections industries work in partnership to operate 2 of the 23 braille production facilities. Two (2) other programs have evolved into 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations operating within prison walls. Although these non-profit organizations are subject to all prison rules and regulations and they utilize prison manpower, they operate independently. They are eligible to apply for and receive grants to cover program expenses, including the purchase of equipment and supplies.
The remaining programs are operated by a combination of "other" entities -- state departments of corrections and education, state departments for the blind, instructional materials resource centers, school districts, residential schools for the blind, and government "special services" programs.
Prison braille programs are financed in a wide variety of ways. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, state departments of corrections, and prison training and education funds are utilized in some cases, while private sector contributions and public and private grants are used in others. In some cases equipment and supplies are donated and income is generated through sales. Most programs are operated through a combination of several of these funding sources.
Pricing structures vary according to the extent of services provided, the difficulty of the braille produced, and the qualifications of the transcribers. For example, textbooks that are primarily literary braille are considerably less complicated and time consuming than textbooks that contain many visuals (photographs, graphs, maps...). The concepts in these visual representations must be conveyed in a non-visual format for blind students. Before braille transcription begins, extensive time is spent editing -- identifying the information presented in each visual and determining the best way to convey the same message to blind students. A detailed photograph may best be described in words, while a map may be reproduced in tactile graphics (raised-line drawings). Visual maps generally convey several concepts at once (cities, waterways, altitudes, land formations...). It may take a series of tactile maps to convey the same information, since cluttered maps are useless to blind students.
There are also many specialized codes in braille, such as computer and foreign language codes. The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation is more complex than literary braille, requiring advanced training and certification.
With all this in mind, fees charged range from $.15 to $3.00 per braille page, and pricing can be negotiable. When transcribing print to braille, 1 page of print can end up being between 2 and 8 pages of braille, depending on the size and complexity of the print copy. When a customer wants print material transcribed into braille, the transcriber reviews the material in advance and provides an estimate on the completed number of braille pages, the length of time transcription will take, and a final project cost estimate.
Income is also generated through providing additional services, such as thermoforming tactile graphics, binding materials, and reproducing documents in large type. Fees are often charged for each additional service (beyond transcription). For example, binding fees generally run between $2.50 and $3.50 per volume.
Each week, individual prison braille programs across the country produce between 54 pages and 12,000 pages of braille. Tactile graphics pages range from 5 per week in a small program, to 650 in the largest. The total number of braille and tactile graphics pages reportedly produced in prison programs during 2001 was over 5 million, ranging from 1,000 to 4,000,000 pages, depending on the size of the program.
Primary customers of prison braille programs are local school districts, residential schools for the blind, state agencies (departments for the blind, departments of education...), libraries, and private businesses.
Most prison braille programs operate under the auspices of either prison educational and vocational training departments, or corrections industries, or a partnership between these entities.
Since learning braille can be difficult and time consuming, inmates selected for the braille programs must meet certain criteria. Most programs require that inmates have at least a high school education or GED equivalency. It is preferable that they have been in prison for at least 2 years so they have had adequate time to adjust to the environment. It is important that they have at least 5 years left to serve before they are eligible for parole, since it can take up to a year for inmates to learn literary braille and begin transcribing.
Inmates must have a clean record for at least the previous year (no disciplinary action), and must be recommended for the program by prison staff. Basic computer skills are mandatory in some programs -- others provide computer training. Desirable inmate characteristics also include an eagerness to learn, the desire to help others, self-motivation, and the ability to work well as a team member.
Some prison braille programs will not accept any applicants who have committed sex offenses, since they will be communicating directly with blind children and adults. The risks, whether real or perceived, are considered too high. Work in the braille program is considered a prestigious placement in most prisons, and there is often a long waiting list of inmate applicants.
Once an inmate is accepted into a program, basic knowledge of contracted braille and competency in literary braille transcription are determined through successful completion of a course of study offered through the Library of Congress, National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The amount of time it takes to complete the course and submit a sample 35-page braille manuscript to NLS for evaluation varies greatly, but is generally between 6 months and 1 year, depending on the time commitment.
Many programs enlist the help of a braille teacher, at least in the initial stages of program development. In the absence of a braille teacher, inmates can take the NLS self-study course on their own or be taught by other inmates who are certified and experienced.
To date, over 145 inmates currently working in braille programs have received NLS Literary Braille Certification. Of those, 21 inmates have received advanced certification in the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, thereby qualifying them to transcribe complex math and science textbooks. Although there is a critical need for music braille transcription across the country, no inmates to date are known to have become certified in this area.
Inmates in braille programs work between 22 and 40 hours per week, with the average being 32.5 hours. Some facilities offer no compensation for inmate transcribers. Those that compensate generally do so with either time or money. "Good time," which is a reduction in time served for hours worked, is extremely valuable to inmates. Those who receive money are paid in one of the following ranges: either $.25 to $2.50 per hour, or $29 to $120 per month. Some inmates are paid by the braille page produced, with fees ranging from $.16 per literary page to $.23 for specialized codes.
Whether individual programs are operated by correctional industries, educational and training programs, other entities, or some combination of these, they all share common challenges. Some of the major challenges identified through the APH survey and field research include:
This is one of a few key elements that is absolutely necessary to develop a successful prison braille program. In most cases, when the administration is not supportive it appears to be due to either a lack of resources or an understandable lack of knowledge about blindness, the demand for braille, and the complexities of braille production. Some consider braille production to pose security risks. For instance, braille can be perceived as a "secret code" that enables inmates to communicate without supervision. Furthermore, most forms of tactile graphics production require the use of sharp tools.
To get a braille program up and running successfully, several key resources are needed: equipment, supplies, manpower, space, and time. Although manpower, per se, is not an issue in the prison setting, finding qualified, interested inmates can be. Space is at a premium in most prisons as well. Additionally, it can take up to 2 years for a program to begin generating revenue. It would be ideal if each new program could identify enough funding to cover overhead expenses for 2 years. Since this is often impossible, most programs start "small" with fewer than 5 inmates, and begin to build once they start charging for services. The estimated cost of purchasing supplies and equipment to start a five-person braille program is $25,000. In several areas of the country, local chapters of the Lions Club have provided initial program funding.
Although braille programs do not necessarily have to offer tactile graphics production (it can be subcontracted to other transcribers), the programs are more likely to attract repeat customers if they can provide consistent braille materials through "one stop shopping." Text copy and tactile graphics work hand-in-hand to convey information, and therefore should be produced within the same braille "shop," if at all possible.
In some prisons, each inmate transcriber is required to produce the tactile graphics for his/her work assignment. In others, a handful of individuals specialize in tactile graphics -- spending most of their time creating graphics for the transcribers.
To create effective tactile graphics, tools such as leather punches, protractors, and tracing wheels are used, in addition to sheets of aluminum foil, which are used to create masters for raised-line drawings. Some prison facilities allow use of all the necessary tools in the program, but keep them locked up and require that inmates check them out each time they are used. Other prisons will not allow inmates access to these devices. When that is the case, only simplistic or computer driven graphics can be produced -- neither of which is the most effective way of conveying information in every instance. Tactile graphics options are significantly limited without the use of specialized tools.
Although it is possible for inmates to learn basic braille through a self-study course, training in specialized areas (tactile graphics, textbook formatting...) is very important to produce quality braille. Some of this training can be provided through resource materials, including books, periodicals, and videotapes. Fortunately for many programs, local professionals in the field of vision will become involved with prison braille programs, offering training and support.
The work of each individual in a braille program is critical to its overall success. However, first and foremost, inmates must comply with direction given them by prison officials. When an inmate is pulled out of a program -- for whatever reason -- the program suffers. The absence may be temporary (for classes, appointments, or disciplinary action, for example), or the inmate may be permanently transferred to another corrections facility.
While temporary absences are inconvenient and cause delays, permanent displacements can wreak havoc on project deadlines, causing much frustration for both transcribers and customers. Although many of these instances are not preventable, there is a consensus among professionals working in prison braille programs that if the prison officials had a better understanding of and appreciation for the complexities of braille production, absences could be reduced and more effort could be made to reinstate trained and certified transcribers (when possible).
Inmates in prison braille programs learn much more than braille transcription. Many have not had full-time jobs prior to joining the braille program, or have not kept them for long if they did. As they are beginning to learn braille, they are also developing characteristics and work habits they will need once they leave prison -- responsibility, self-confidence, accountability, ability to follow instructions, respect for authority, and willingness to work as a member of a team -- to name a few. Whether or not they become employed as braille transcribers once they leave prison, the inmates will have learned much as a result of their training and developed many skills and knowledge that can be translated to other jobs in the workforce, including:
Every professional who has worked in a prison braille program and responded to APH requests for information has said that the braille program changes almost every participating inmate in a very significant and positive way. There are those who simply show up and do the work -- for them braille production is just a way to pass the time. But the vast majority of inmates make significant progress in developing a sense of self-worth and an excellent work ethic.
Inmates, themselves, talk about the joy they get from being able to "give back" to society by helping people who are braille readers. They are frequently surprised to discover their own capabilities, and are grateful to the braille program for giving their lives in prison meaning by offering a wide variety of learning opportunities.
Although there are no recidivism records kept relative to prison braille programs, anecdotal information indicates that very few -- if any -- inmates who participate in these programs return to prison once they are paroled.
Until recently, few parolees have continued working as braille transcribers once they transition to "the outside." Full-time positions as braille transcribers have been rare and may have required relocation -- which can conflict with conditions of parole. The majority of transcribers work from their homes or offices on a contractual basis, and individuals recently released from prison seldom have the financial resources to "set up shop." Braille transcription is also a job that requires focus and concentration. Once they are out of the prison setting, former inmates often find that the rigors of daily life demand more attention than they had anticipated, making this type of employment extremely challenging.
Today, however, parolees have many more opportunities to use their transcription skills. The need for braille and the demand for transcribers have clearly increased in recent years, and this trend will continue. The first college-level course of study in braille transcription is now being offered at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas (established in 2002). Other efforts are being made across the country to recognize and promote braille transcription as a professional career -- much like sign language interpretation for the hearing impaired.
One of the goals of the APH Prison Braille Program is to help identify potential sources of start-up funding for qualified inmate transcribers once they leave the prison setting, and to give them the support they will need to become successful.
Braille transcribers generally work either full-time for a braille production company, or on a contractual basis from their home or office. Since there are very few large braille production companies across the U.S., the vast majority of transcribers provide their services through a "cottage industry" setting.
According to the AFB survey, the annual salary range for full-time, certified transcribers begins at about $18,000 and can go as high as $50,000 (plus benefits). When paid by the hour, fees range between $6 and $18 per hour. Fees commanded by braille transcribers depend upon their level of certification, previous experience, and the difficulty of the work assignment.
The same criteria hold true for payment of contract transcribers. Another factor considered in these situations is whether the transcriber owns the equipment, materials, and paper used, or if the braille contractor provides these resources. Fees paid per braille page range from $0.25 to $5. When paid by the hour, outsource transcribers generally earn between $8 and $35 per hour. And when paid by the project, fees range from $75 to $5,000.
Contact APH to learn more about employment opportunities for braille transcribers. (See back cover of this report for contact information.)
Having gathered this encouraging information about the contributions being made by prison braille programs across the country, APH has led the charge in opening lines of communication among facilities. An initial gathering of professionals working with prison programs at the October 2001 APH Annual Meeting in Louisville resulted in the survey cited in this report and the establishment of a prison braille listserv for sharing information and ideas.
In the coming months, APH staff will work with this group to develop a national agenda designed to promote and support these programs. Educating corrections professionals on the need for and complexities of braille production, developing training materials for inmate transcribers, encouraging quality production standards, and identifying potential sources of funding are a few of the opportunities APH hopes to pursue.
There is no doubt that prison braille programs bring about positive change on all fronts. Inmates learn, develop critical job skills, and give back to the community for the wrong they have done. Professionals in corrections and the field of blindness link arms to utilize their resources and address a critical need across the U.S.
Most importantly, people who are blind are gaining access to many braille materials that they would not have otherwise. This can make all the difference in the world for a blind adult determined to function independently, or for a blind child -- not only to become literate, but to have the opportunity to realize his or her full potential.
Professionals working to develop and/or implement braille transcription programs in correctional facilities are invited to join the APH prison braille listserv. This "emailing list" is a communication tool offering members the opportunity to post suggestions or questions to others with similar interests and challenges. The listserv is closed (meaning that the manager must approve all requests to subscribe) and unmoderated (all messages are sent to all subscribers without being reviewed or edited).
To subscribe to the listserv:
Nancy Lacewell, listserv manager, will contact you to get more information about your involvement with prison braille programs. Once your request is approved you will be sent general information about the listserv and "how to..." guidelines.
Prison braille programs in the U.S. today produce over 5,000,000 pages of braille per year.
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) is gaining hands-on experience with a prison braille program in the only women's correctional facility in Kentucky. Located near Louisville, the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW) houses about 700 inmates. This state facility is a combination maximum, medium, and minimum security.
Since October 2000, a braille production facility has been operating under the auspices of Kentucky Correctional Industries (KCI). KCI Braille Services currently employs 12 women, 9 of whom are NLS certified literary braille transcribers. It is preferred that inmates joining the program have at least 8 years to parole eligibility or minimum expiration of sentence, although inmates with as little as 5 years left to serve have been accepted.
KCI Braille Services is a partnership among KCI, KCIW, and APH, and as such is strongly supported by the leadership of each institution. Gary Mudd, APH Vice President of Public Affairs, explains that APH initiated the program in an effort to deliver more braille textbooks to blind students. "We were aware of several prison braille 'success stories' across the country and wanted to see if we could develop a quality program locally," says Gary. "The inmates are dedicated and hard-working, and their braille is excellent -- especially for beginners."
An inmate talks about the positive impact the program has had on her life; "Every day I learn something new -- about braille, about capabilities I never knew I had, and about meeting deadlines. Producing braille is a challenge, but it is also rewarding. I am helping students learn, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to 'give back' to society for some of my mistakes."
Technological advances have made it possible for people who are blind to access more information today than ever before. However, knowledge of braille will always be the key to literacy for people who are blind.
Federal Medical Center
Federal Correctional Institution
Yankton Federal Prison Camp
Arizona State Prison
Arizona State Prison
Wrightsville State Prison
Folsom State Prison
Cheshire State Prison
Delaware Correctional Center
Men's State Prison at Milledgeville
Anamosa State Penitentiary
Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women
Bay State Correctional Facility
G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility
Nebraska State Penitentiary
Southern Desert Correctional Center
Grafton Correctional Institution
Leath Correctional Facility
South Dakota State Penitentiary
TDCJ Mountain View Unit Braille/Computer Recovery Facility
Washington Corrections Center for Women
Hutttonsville Correctional Center
Oshkosh Correctional Institution
1 Education Reduces Crime, Three State Recidivism Study -- Executive Summary, Correctional Education Association (CEA) and Management & Training Corporation Institute (MTCI) (February 2003). Complete study can be accessed at www.ceanational.org.
2 "Vision Problems in the U.S.: Prevalence of Adult Vision Impairment and Age-Related Eye Disease in America," Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute (2002). Access through www.preventblindness.org and www.nei.nih.gov/eyedata.
3 Survey on the Training and Availability of Braille Transcribers, American foundation for the blind (AFB) Textbook and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum (2000). Access through the AFB website: www.afb.org.
4 Survey on Prison Braille Programs Across the U.S., American Printing House for the Blind, Public Affairs Department N. Lacewell and R. Snider (2002).
For more information, contact
Director of Government and Community Affairs
Public Affairs Administrative Assistant
American Printing House for the Blind
1839 Frankfort Avenue
Louisville, KY 40206
Phone (502) 895-2405
Toll Free (800) 223-1839
Fax (502) 899-2363
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) promotes the independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing specialized materials, products, and services needed for education and life. Founded in 1858, APH is the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the U.S. Since 1879, APH has been designated by the Federal government as the source of special educational products for blind students, below college level, across the country. For more information, visit the APH website at www.aph.org.