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Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs

Part 1: Setting the Stage


Prison braille programs are braille training and production operations that function within correctional facilities. Inmates learn how to transcribe print materials into braille, and then use these newly acquired skills to produce braille materials for people who are blind.

Snapshot of prison braille programs in the U.S. in 2009:

  • 36 programs currently operating *
  • 2 programs in federal prisons
  • 29 programs in state prisons
  • 23 programs in men’s prisons
  • 583 men currently working in prison braille programs
  • 7 programs in women’s prisons
  • 203 women currently working in prison braille programs
  • 1 program in a prison with facilities for both men and women
  • 0-3% reported recidivism among offenders who worked in prison braille programs for at least two years and have been released

* Five programs currently operating prefer not to be identified in this publication or listed in the Prison Braille Program Directory published by APH. They are included only in the total number of programs.


There are many driving forces behind establishing prison braille programs in the U.S. One major force is a growing need for quality braille materials, particularly textbooks and related educational materials for students who are blind in grades K-12. Another is the increasing cost of braille production, which is extremely labor intensive. Correctional institutions can reduce labor costs for braille transcription by utilizing inmate workers. At the same time, offenders gain marketable skills and insight into their own capabilities while giving back to society for their past mistakes.

The initial “founders” of prison braille programs in the U.S. were educational institutions having difficulty securing braille materials for their students in a timely, cost effective manner — and educational institutions continue to establish programs today. However, since the corrections community began to see the positive changes that offenders experience through participation in prison braille programs, individual prisons have begun launching programs by approaching vision organizations and inviting their collaboration. Corrections officials who have worked with prison braille programs in one prison and then moved to another are often interested in starting a program in the new facility and seek out local vision experts for help.


All prison braille programs operate — to one degree or another — as partnerships between individual correctional facilities and at least one agency working to provide braille materials to people who are blind. Other corrections agencies, such as correctional industries, may join partnerships when appropriate as well.

While the mission and goals of these partnering organizations are quite different and their paths may never cross otherwise, each group benefits from this unique collaborative effort. Each entity has clearly identified needs that partnering organizations are uniquely qualified to fill.

As with all collaborations, each partner should understand and respect the unique goals and responsibilities that the other brings to the program. Since these programs operate within prison walls, it is understood that the mission of the prison to ensure safety and security is paramount, and that vision professionals will follow all rules and regulations set by the prison.

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A transcriber working at the Mountain View Braille Unit in Gatesville, Texas, reads simbraille (or simulated braille) on the computer screen as she transcribes.

Primary Goals

  • Correctional facilities: To educate, rehabilitate, and prepare offenders for reentry by providing them with opportunities to gain job skills, establish a viable career path, and discover their own talents and abilities.
  • Vision-related organizations: To develop a highly qualified braille transcription workforce that will produce quality braille materials for people who are blind, particularly textbooks and related educational materials for students who are blind in grades K-12.


Each individual or organization involved with prison braille programs benefits in some way — and most benefit in several ways.

  • Braille readers receive more of the reading materials they want and need in their preferred reading medium, at a reasonable cost. This means that a fifth grade student may be more likely to receive his textbooks at the same time as his sighted peers, or that an adult who is blind can pursue career options once considered inaccessible. Access to written information promotes independence and opens doors of opportunity in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired.
  • Agencies serving the blind, such as schools, state departments of education, and social service agencies, are better able to fulfill their missions by meeting the needs of clientele for braille materials. Braille materials can be produced in a time-efficient manner in prison settings, since transcribers generally work in teams. The cost of braille production in correctional facilities is substantially lower than the cost of braille produced by organizations on the outside. This results in significant savings for agencies with limited budgets that purchase braille materials.
  • Offenders can benefit from participating in prison braille programs in a wide variety of life-changing ways: — Strengthening cognitive skills. — Gaining work experience and work ethics by holding a full-time job — many for the first time. — Learning to work as part of a team while discovering and utilizing individual strengths and talents.
    • Gaining self confidence by learning a complex translation code, completing tasks successfully, and earning respect from peers, supervisors, and family members.
    • Learning braille and developing a viable career path that can be continued outside of prison following release.
    • Giving back to society to atone for past mistakes by improving the lives of people who are blind.
    • Learning marketable job-related skills that can be transferred to other professions (i.e.: operating specialized equipment, estimating project costs, scheduling and juggling multiple projects, managing time, entering data and keyboarding, organizational skills, project management, copy editing, and more).
    • Considering the needs of others through understanding how students who are blind learn and producing braille materials in appropriate formats that best meet their needs.
    • Establishing a major component of a sound reentry plan.
  • Correctional facilities charged with maintaining safe, secure environments and preparing offenders for eventual reentry benefit from inmates who are rehabilitated through their participation in meaningful, educational activities. With data collected to date, it is evident that the recidivism rate of long-term prison braille participants is very low, indicating that these programs prepare them well for successful reentry. When involved, prison industries can generate revenue for business operations while providing offenders with meaningful job opportunities and job skills training.

Selecting a prison

Although there may not be a choice of prisons in which the braille production facility can be established, there are certain criteria to consider if program developers have more than one option. The prison selected should have:

  • Adequate, dedicated space. (Read more about this in Part 3.)
  • A mission that supports educational programming and emphasizes rehabilitation and learning job skills in preparation for reentry.
  • A warden who strongly supports the program, will allow vision personnel to enter the prison regularly, and will permit the use of necessary materials and supplies.
  • Adequate corrections personnel to provide program security.
  • Close proximity to vision professionals willing to help.
  • A significant pool of long-term inmates. (Read more about this in Part 3.)

Inmate gender does not generally play a role in prison selection, since both men and women can become highly successful braille transcribers.

Setting within the prison

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KCI Braille Services, Pewee Valley, Kentucky, a correctional industries program.

Prison braille programs can operate successfully both within educational and vocational training settings, and under the auspices of correctional industries. Prison officials in each facility determine the appropriate setting within their institution, considering such factors as space, available personnel, institutional goals, and administrative function.

Some programs focus solely on providing educational opportunities for inmates, who may receive “credits,” or reduced sentence time for their work. Other programs operate under prison industries and pay inmates a nominal hourly fee to learn and produce braille. Focused on teaching work skills and providing job experience for inmates, industry programs can also generate revenue to help offset operational costs — as mentioned above. Depending on rules of the responsible justice system, inmates may or may not be paid for their work, and consumers may or may not be charged for braille materials. These decisions are made by the correctional facility housing the prison braille program, with input from vision agency partners.


The scope of a prison braille program refers to the “menu” of services the program provides. Since prison braille programs across the U.S. today are each unique to the institution in which they are housed, the scope of each program is determined by institution goals and available resources (dedicated space, security personnel, equipment and supplies, funding, etc.). Some start out providing limited services and then expand as resources become available.

The most common services that programs provide to customers include:

Braille transcription:

Translating print copy into braille formatted files according to precise rules established by the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) and textbook formatting guidelines established by the National Braille Association (NBA).


Careful review of materials that have been transcribed, comparing them with the print originals. Errors are marked and materials are sent back to the transcriber for correction.

Tactile graphics production:

Creating raised line or raised dot drawings to depict images in print material, such as maps, charts, graphs, and illustrations. There are several acceptable methods of creating tactile graphics, each requiring specific tools, materials, and equipment.

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There are many different ways to create tactile graphics. At the left, a transcriber works with a spur wheel to produces lines with raised dots. She will heat the master graphic in the thermoform machine (rear of photo) to create plastic copies that will be included in textbooks. At the right, a tactile graphics producer uses background lighting from a light box to draw lines on a graphic. The center photo shows collage graphic supplies and tactile graphics being developed.


Pressing braille dots onto thick braille paper using either a manual braillewriter, or a machine called an embosser — much like print copy is produced on a printer. Braille files can be transferred electronically from computer to embosser.


Standard printing capacity enables programs to offer large print and print/braille materials in addition to braille only, expanding the customer base.


The most commonly used methods of binding braille are three-ring, twin loop, and comb binding. Packaging: Meeting customer requests for shrink wrapping or boxing embossed copies in specific quantities.


Includes delivering paper materials to customers via U.S. Postal Service, commercial carriers, and hand- delivery, as well as transferring braille files electronically.

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Graphics can be designed using computer software programs. Tactile elements are incorporated using a variety of different methods.

The minimum service that a prison braille program can offer is braille transcription. In this case, transcribed materials must be sent to another entity for services required by the customer, such as proofreading and the addition of tactile graphics. The more services provided by a program, the more offenders can be involved, and the more customers can be served.

Rules and regulations of some prisons limit the scope of services that can be offered. For example, if a prison does not allow the use of tactile graphics tools, collaboration with another group or individual transcriber may be necessary to produce these raised line depictions, and then braille text and tactile graphics pages can be collated in the prison.

Steps before starting a program

The following steps must be taken before the final decision to start a prison braille program can be made. These steps are included as a checklist in Appendix A.

A. Identify key players and secure leadership support.

Both the prison warden and the lead person in the vision agency (such as the superintendent of the school for the blind) must understand and fully support the program. The warden, for instance, should be willing to allow vision professionals access to the program on a regular basis.

B. Clarify goals of each partnering organization for the program, and build these goals into the program design and implementation.

For example, if a warden is particularly interested in preparing offenders for reentry as transcribers through the prison braille program, preparation steps should be built into the curriculum (guidance on writing a resume, building a portfolio, and establishing a business plan). Braille transcription as a career should also be integrated into individual reentry plans, when that is appropriate.

C. Identify the market for braille.

Identify the need for braille materials in the local community and state in which the program is located and confirm with potential customers that they will utilize the program as an ongoing source for braille. Determine how the program can supply braille to people who are blind throughout the U.S.

For example, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) outsources braille transcription to many qualified individuals and groups across the country — including many prison braille programs. Request an application from APH to become an outsource. Also, once a program is established, it should be registered on APH’s Accessible Media Producers (AMP) database (see Appendix B). This service provides free “advertising.” When people across the country need braille materials they can access this database and find individual program information.

D. Recruit a qualified professional(s) in the field of vision to manage the braille production aspect of the program.

This person should be knowledgeable about braille, familiar with the national network of vision professionals, willing to enter the prison on a regular basis to manage the program, and motivated to ensure that the program succeeds. These professionals could be employees of partnering vision agencies, volunteers, or consultants paid by one or more partners.

E. Identify prison personnel who can oversee the program and provide necessary security.

These professionals should be kept “in the loop” at all times on what tools and supplies are allowed in the program, and what offenders should be doing on a daily basis. Some prisons require that corrections staff working with prison braille programs learn braille. This should be clarified before corrections staff is selected.

F. Secure adequate, dedicated physical space within the prison.

Appropriate space is critical if the program is to succeed, and this is often the most difficult resource to secure in correctional facilities. The size of space available will determine the size and scope of the program. For example, KCI Braille Services in Kentucky operates a program with 15 women and a full array of services in two rooms. The combined square footage is 1,254.

G. Determine the most appropriate setting for the program within the prison — educational, vocational, or prison industries.

The goals of each program should be taken into consideration in placement decisions. For example, if the vision agency involved wants to provide braille free of charge to customers, prison industries probably would not be a good placement since bringing in revenue is an industry goal.

H. Identify funding needed and sources of support.

Partnering organizations may be willing to provide many of the resources needed (used computers, equipment, supplies, manpower) on an in-kind basis — in fact, this is often the case. Funding will be needed to start up and maintain operations, and at least initial sources should be identified before a program can be launched.

I. Find out if prison rules and regulations will allow for the unique needs of a braille production facility.

If partnering organizations want to operate a program offering the entire scope of transcription services, sharp tools or expensive electronic equipment will be needed for tactile graphics production. Determine if the warden is willing to establish a secure method of allowing use of these tools. For example, a tool kit could be checked out of a locked space each morning and returned at the end of each day.

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This Tactile Graphics Kit, produced by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains specialized tools and materials to create raised line drawings.

J. Confirm with prison staff that qualified, interested inmates are available and will be allowed to participate.

Offenders in these programs are generally required to have a high school diploma or GED, and at least five years remaining before their first possible parole or serve out date – (Read more about this in Part 3.).

K. Partners must agree on roles and responsibilities, decision- making processes, and a chain of command.

A starting point could be that prison personnel will make all decisions related to safety and security, and vision professionals will make all decisions related to braille production. For example, which braille jobs are accepted for production and job priorities should be determined by vision staff, based on skill levels required, transcribers available, the number of jobs in production, and deadlines for other jobs. An outline of responsibilities in each area should clarify roles.

L. Partners should develop and sign a written contract, memorandum of understanding, or similar document that clarifies the purpose, scope, and goals of the program, as well as partner responsibilities.

This document will serve not only as a blueprint for the program, but can be used to establish annual goals and evaluate progress.

Cost factors

Prison braille programs require dedicated space, security and vision personnel, computers and other equipment and machinery, curriculum materials, reference materials, software, and general supplies. A list of basic equipment and resources needed to begin operating a program, as well as estimated costs, is included as Appendix C.

In addition to general program equipment and supplies, each individual transcriber needs equipment, supplies, and resource materials at his workspace. Transcribers will make notes in these materials as they gain experience, and each should be allowed to keep them, even after release from prison if the inmates intends to transcribe on the outside. Appendix E lists these individual needs, along with cost estimates.

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An experienced and certified transcriber (right) helps a transcriber trainee learn how to use a braillewriter in the Georgia Braille Transcribers program in Macon, Georgia.

Identifying the number of program participants is one key factor in determining program costs, since a program that operates with five inmates will require less space and fewer work stations and individual materials than a program that starts with fifteen participants. Many programs start with only a few transcribers and grow as resources become available.

Another important cost factor to consider is how the program will be staffed, including how expertise in braille is to be delivered to the operation (voluntary or paid). A variety of options are available to provide braille expertise when establishing and operating programs. Some vision organizations will “loan” qualified personnel to the program on a part-time basis as an in-kind contribution. Others hire current or retired educators qualified to teach braille. It is a good idea — and some prisons actually require — that corrections personnel working with the program learn braille. Knowledge of braille is critical for managing a prison braille program, both to guide individuals in learning and transcribing braille and to ensure that the program is not misused by inmates.

Eventually, inmates will develop expertise in braille and may be allowed to teach and mentor transcriber trainees — depending upon the regulations of each prison. In this scenario, staff members who know braille should continue to supervise the program and resolve issues among transcribers, such as differing interpretations of braille formatting rules. Since earning the respect of offenders is crucial in a prison environment, braille instructors should treat offenders fairly and consistently, and should make every effort to share information related to braille production beyond the walls with the inmates in the program. This can be accomplished by allowing inmates (or at least one person in the program) to join the National Braille Association (NBA), which is an excellent source of braille updates and training materials.

Security staff will also be a cost factor in establishing a prison braille program. Often, security staff will work within the framework already established by a prison for educational, vocational, or industry programs. Existing staff is assigned to supervise the program as an in-kind contribution. Once prison braille programs become fully operational, they may have the opportunity to work overtime to meet customer deadlines. The option of providing security staffing beyond normal work hours should be considered.

Ongoing operations of a prison braille program require annual budgeting by partner agencies to ensure that needed resources and personnel are available. Cooperating agencies should identify potential fluctuations in the market for braille throughout the year and reflect that in their fiscal planning.

Maintaining and upgrading equipment, such as braille embossers and computers, is another cost factor to consider, as are software upgrades. Expanding programs will also need to purchase additional workstations and reference materials.

Transcribers are required to take national certification courses (which are explained further in Part 2). There is a fee charged for at least one of these courses (Braille Textbook Formatting), which should be included in fiscal planning. Reference materials, supplies, packaging, and shipping fees for all certification courses should also be considered.

Funding Sources

A full range of funding sources should be explored when preparing to start a prison braille program.

Typically, the prison in which each program is housed and the vision agency working with each program make in-kind contributions to get programs started. For example, correctional facilities may agree to cover overhead expenses, loan space to the program, and assign a staff member to supervise the program. Vision agencies may also provide staff support, braillewriters, braille paper, and tactile graphics supplies. Some materials needed in the program are provided free, such as those needed for the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, course on Literary Braille Transcription. These materials can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). (See Appendix E)

In addition to in-kind contributions and free materials, most current programs take a multi-faceted approach to securing financial support. Options include:

  • State government, via departments of education, corrections, and disabilities.
  • Federal government, through legislation such as the Second Chance Act.
  • Grants from foundations, which typically require non-profit status.
  • Civic underwriters, such as Lions Clubs, which support vision-related programs and sponsor several prison braille programs across the U.S.
  • Private contributions from individuals and corporations.
  • Earned income from sales of braille materials.

In Their Own Words…

Male transcriber, State Penitentiary, Braille Center, Anamosa, Iowa

I have had the pleasure of working in the Anamosa Braille Center (ABC) for 7 years and I have found it a gratifying experience. I became certified in 2003 and now supervise a shop of 19 inmates…

Since its inception, ABC has been recognized as a leader in the field of prison work programs. In 1992, ABC was a semifinalist under the category of Innovations in State and Local Government by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a program of the Ford Foundation. In 2006, ABC was featured in the fall newsletter of the National Correctional Industries Association. Finally, in 2008 ABC was awarded the Bernie Vogelgesgang Award for Outstanding Correctional Program in Iowa by the Iowa Corrections Association.

The reason I mention all of the accolades the shop has received is simple. None of it happens without dedicated participation from every inmate involved with the program. The braille program here has given everyone involved with it a sense of higher purpose. It has not only issued valuable skills to the inmate transcribers but it has driven home to everyone involved just how directly involved they are with a student’s education…

The degree of proficiency inmate braille transcribers display never ceases to amaze me.

Female transcriber, State Correctional Institution, BrailleMates, Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania

At the age of twenty-one I found myself incarcerated. Staring at a thirteen and a half to twenty-seven year sentence. I thought all was hopeless.

…Being involved in braille since 2004 has allowed me to use my energies to accomplish a higher purpose — bringing the light of learning into someone else’s life. I became organized, productive, responsible. For once in my life I found I had a voice that I had never used. For the first time in a very long time I felt like I was worthy. Proud of myself and my accomplishments. Braille has been my salvation in the darkest time of my life.

…Braille taught me to look at things through different eyes.

Rhoda Winstead, Superintendent, State Correctional Institution, Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania

Our braille program at SCI-CBS was initiated in 1996 in the early years of our institution. Since its inception, it has been a tremendous benefit for the inmates involved in the program as well as for those in need of braille services in our state. Many of our inmates involved in the program have longer sentences and over the years this program has significantly improved their perspective and behavior. Their dedication and effort to attain Library of Congress certifications has provided a great source of pride and accomplishment, which is well deserved.

…During the course of their tenure in the program, there is marked improvement in their self-esteem and self-confidence. As this occurs over time, numerous inmates have related that they begin to think about the greater possibilities that life has to offer. For most, this is the first positive encounter they have experienced with employment and achievement in life….

Since the initiation of the braille program, we have not had any of our past transcribers return to our facility.

Robert Eutz, Director, Miami Braille Project, Miami Correctional Facility Bunker Hill, Indiana

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Miami Braille Project director Robert Eutz (right) works with a transcriber.

Ten percent of Indiana offenders have some college education, giving us a qualified pool of applicants.

Eunice Rowell, Ed.D., Manager, SCSDB Braille Production Center, Leath Correctional Center for Women, Greenwood, South Carolina

The South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind (SCSDB) Braille Production Center opened in January 2002, at Leath Correctional Institution for Women, through a partnership agreement between SCSDB and the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC). SCSDB provided training and consultation and SCDC operated the center as a part of Prison Industries. The Center opened with three inmates and a center manager, none of whom were skilled and/or knowledgeable in braille. After three years the three inmates and their manager received their Literary Certification from the National Library of Congress (NLS).

Unfortunately, SCDC closed the Center in 2006 due to lack of sufficient revenue. In March 2007, the center reopened with SCSDB sponsorship as a private service industry under the auspices of the SCDC Associate Warden. SCDC provided the inmate workers and a new larger space for the transcribers and manager. An experienced manager was hired by SCSDB, and the same three certified braille inmate transcribers were rehired.

Currently, there are eleven inmate transcribers: eight are NLS Literary Certified and two have their National Braille Association (NBA) Textbook Formatting certification. In addition, the Center has a part-time assistant who can oversee the work in the absence of the manager.

The great part about our braille program is that we have eleven inmate transcribers who express an unconditional affection for braille and a great desire to provide braille textbooks to the students in our state. All of the inmates have learned that there is no substitute for perfection in the area of Braille and have expressed a desire to continue with braille transcription upon their release from the SCDC system.

The SCSDB Braille Production Center is well respected by the Warden and other top officials in the SCDC system and is known as “the pride of the prison.” If the program could speak for itself, we believe it would say: “We have taught these inmates communication skills, social skills, personal life- changing skills, and skills that will help them to become productive citizens once they are back into society.”

Female transcriber, SCSDB Braille Production Center, Leath Correctional Institution for Women, Greenwood, South Carolina

Becoming a part of the braille program has shown me that I am capable of so much more than I could ever imagine. I have hope of becoming a productive part of my community and not just another unemployed felon because of the opportunity this program provides. I can now set goals for myself because I have spent my time here at Leath learning something that will help me become a more productive citizen when I am released from prison. I am honored to be able to provide visually handicapped children with the same textbooks and graphics that sighted children use, thus giving them the same educational advantages as a sighted child.

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