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Prison Braille FAQs

The answers to these frequently asked questions can be found in more detail in the Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs, as well as in the 2009 Directory of Prison Braille Programs.

What is braille?

Braille is a system of raised dots that people who are blind read by touch. People who are sighted – including transcribers, vision teachers, and parents of children who are blind – generally read braille by sight. Braille is not a language but a code by which languages such as English and Spanish can be written and read.

What is a prison braille program?

A prison braille program is a braille production facility established within prison walls that utilizes the talents and abilities of offenders to transcribe print materials into braille for braille readers of all ages.

When were the first prison braille operations established?

Prison braille programs have been operating in the U.S. since at least the 1960s, but their roots can be traced back to Norway in the 1920s. The United Kingdom has a long history and an extensive network of braille production facilities in prisons. In fact, much of the braille produced in the United Kingdom today is transcribed by inmates.

How many programs are there currently in the U.S.?

There are 36 prison braille programs (including 2 "related services" units) known to be operating in 26 different states in the U.S. in 2009, and new programs are being established each year. Seven of the existing programs are in women’s prisons, and 28 are in men’s prisons.

How many inmates currently transcribe braille?

There are currently about 620 men and 205 women working in prison braille programs – learning or producing braille.

How is braille learned?

Literary braille certification is issued by the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Although this course can be completed through self-study and exercises can be reviewed via correspondence with the administering organization – the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) – the learning process can be greatly enhanced if a certified braille instructor is available to teach lessons and answer questions.

What agency (or agencies) manages prison braille programs?

Each program in unique, but most are operated as partnerships between the prison and a local agency serving the blind. When corrections industries are involved, they serve as a program partner as well.

Under what auspices are these programs operating in prisons – within education/vocation programs or corrections industries?

Prison braille programs can and do operate within both correctional industry settings and educational/vocational programs. Some programs have divisions in each arena. For example, while inmates are learning braille (which can take 6 months or more), they are supervised by educational/vocational staff, and when they begin production they move to industries. Others operate outside of both education/vocation and industries as an entirely separate entity.

What are the requirements for an inmate to join a prison braille program?

Although specific requirements vary from prison to prison, most programs only accept inmates with a high school diploma or GED, and with a minimum of 5 years left before first possible parole or serve out date. Some of the characteristics that are helpful include: self-motivation, the ability to work independently and as a member of a team, strong communication skills, and a strong desire to learn and to provide a much needed service to a population with unique reading needs. Many braille programs require that applicants successfully complete evaluations in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and reading prior to acceptance into the program.

What are the challenges of prison braille programs?

As with any production business operating behind prison walls, logistics of managing the program, as well as taking materials into the prison and bringing products out, can be a challenge. Security is of utmost importance and all partners understand that it must be maintained at all times. Partners in the vision and corrections fields speak different languages and must learn about each other’s mission, goals, and expectations. Getting the buy-in of wardens and other corrections officials can be a roadblock, as well as identifying and recruiting inmates who can succeed as transcribers.

What is the value of these programs?

Prison braille programs have proven to offer many benefits to all agencies and individuals involved.

  • For braille readers – More high quality braille materials are produced and available, helping to improve educational and career opportunities for people who are blind.
  • For vision professionals – The national shortage of braille transcribers is significantly decreased, resulting in more accessible materials for the students and adults they serve.
  • For prisons – Goals to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them for successful careers upon reentry are accomplished through prison braille programs. Offenders are occupied and stay out of trouble.
  • For offenders – Time is well spent learning how to transcribe braille and to work well with others; personal talents and interests are discovered. Many job skills are gained including: computer and software skills, small business management, scheduling, teamwork, bookkeeping, etc. Lives are rehabilitated and prepared for successful careers upon reentry.
  • For corrections industries – Offenders learn many valuable job skills and products can be sold to braille readers and institutions serving these individuals. Programs can provide significant income for industries.

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