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Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs

Part 4: Reentry as a Braille Transcriber

As experienced corrections officials know, planning for the successful reentry of offenders is a complex, individualized process that should start when an offender enters prison. Accepting responsibility for crimes committed, changing attitudes and behavior, and learning new skills are important components of the rehabilitation process to prepare offenders for their eventual release back into society.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that over 50% of inmates released from prison will be in some form of legal trouble within three years, and that less educated inmates are most likely to return to prison. According to BJS, a sound reentry plan, which addresses the needs for education, housing, employment, and support systems, can significantly reduce the possibility that an offender will recidivate.

Prison braille programs provide the ideal setting to foster rehabilitation and to prepare offenders for successful reentry for a wide variety of reasons. Participants must:

  • Take the initiative to apply for a position in the program.
  • Improve their reading comprehension, grammar, and decision making skills.
  • Represent themselves well during the interview process.
  • Show up for work every day and complete assignments as directed.
  • Abide by all rules set by the program (for sample rules, see Appendix M).
  • Learn literary braille and more complex codes (time permitting).
  • Take challenging courses of study and pass thorough examinations.
  • Read and learn from dozens of textbooks and other written materials as they transcribe these print materials into braille.
  • Learn to work independently.
  • Learn to work as team members and compromise when appropriate.
  • Resolve issues through research, critical thinking, and asking for help.
  • Prepare a resume and a portfolio of their work.
  • Learn about blindness and how people who are blind read and learn.
  • Willingly give back to the community for crimes they have committed.

In addition to providing educational opportunities and incidental learning, establishing skills and a career in transcription can help to strengthen relationships with family members. Braille transcription can be done anywhere, allowing former offenders to stay near support systems — a component of successful reentry.

Data is currently being gathered to determine recidivism rates among prison braille participants. However, anecdotal research over the past nine years (gathered via the National Prison Braille Network) indicates that, for inmates who have participated in a prison braille program for at least two years, the recidivism rate is between 0% and 3%. Although not all program “graduates” are producing braille, they have learned enough about their own capabilities and gained sufficient job skills that they are able to find and maintain employment.

Many program managers believe that one of the key factors in achieving this low recidivism rate is the rare opportunity that prison braille programs offer offenders to learn about themselves. Many uncover skills and abilities they never knew they had, and learn they’re much more intelligent than their past experience would indicate. These discoveries lead to enhanced self-confidence, motivation to succeed, and the desire to show others that they have turned their lives around.

Prison braille programs consistently report that inmates in these programs rarely cause disciplinary problems within the prison. Once they begin to discover their strengths and build new skills they don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize their journey toward success.

Employment opportunities

Mountain View Braille Facility, Gatesville, Texas

Braille transcribers have two basic options for employment:

  • Working as a transcriber for a company or organization that produces braille.
  • Self-employment — producing braille as a “cottage industry.”
  • Appendix F, page 69, lists major national and international organizations that may need braille transcription services or may be of help in identifying transcriber employment opportunities. Salary ranges and rates depend greatly upon the certifications and skills of the transcriber applying for employment.
  • Working for one of these companies could require relocation, which may not be possible due to parole restrictions. Advantages of working full-time for a large producer of braille include benefits (such as health insurance) and working within a group of transcribers who can collaborate on projects and help one another as needed.

As of 2009, the range of starting hourly pay for transcribers hired at the American Printing House for the Blind is as follows. Actual starting pay rates depend upon individual transcriber experience and additional qualifications (such as tactile graphics production, textbook formatting, Nemeth and music codes).

NLS Certified Literary Braille Transcribers $13.60-14.40
NBA Certified Textbook Transcribers $14.75-15.55
NLS Certified Nemeth Braille Transcribers $15.75-16.55

Much of the braille produced in the U.S. today is by individuals working out of their homes or offices. Several independent transcribers can form a small business or cooperative relationship, in which they support each other and pass along business opportunities.

As stated earlier, self-employed braille transcribers are not limited by their locale. Technology and access to email and and other delivery services enable transcribers to work from almost anywhere. Self-employment requires strong self-discipline, but former offenders who are highly motivated, who have succeeded in learning and producing high-quality braille, and who develop an effective business plan prior to release can find success as independent contractors.

Former offenders may also be able to contract with school systems to provide services, even if they are not eligible to work directly with students. Colleges and universities generally have disability services departments or work with a regional collaborative to address print accessibility issues for students who are visually impaired. Braille transcribers may find any or all of these scenarios to be a source for full-time employment or for contract work.

Transition plan

For those inmates who will eventually be released — which constitutes about 95% of all prisoners — preparing to work as a braille transcriber on the outside should begin once the literary braille certification has been earned. Passing this initial course is a milestone — it indicates that an individual has the capacity to learn braille and was motivated enough to successfully complete a rigorous course of study. By the time this certification is earned, an individual should know if he or she wants to pursue braille transcription as a career. Most learn much earlier if braille is just not for them and drop out of the program.

For those who enjoy the work and would like to continue on the outside, completion of this course is just the first step toward a successful career. There are other steps that must be taken to build the core employment component of a transition plan:

Mastering advanced braille skills

As has been stated in Part 2 of these guidelines, the more advanced skill that is required to translate a project, the more the transcriber can charge per page. For example, if a transcriber is working on a fifth grade literary book, which can be completed with literary braille certification, he can currently charge about $2.00 per page. But if the transcriber has Nemeth Braille Certification and is working on an eleventh grade calculus textbook, he can charge $3.00 or more per page.

In the world of braille, marketable skills equate to earning a good living, and skills are gained by completing advanced certification courses. At the very least, offenders who want to pursue braille as a career should become certified in both literary braille and textbook formatting prior to release, and gain as much knowledge and experience as they can producing tactile graphics. Although there is not yet a national certification course in tactile graphics, these raised line drawings are key to transcribing most textbooks today.

Building a portfolio and a resume

Once a transcriber begins to produce braille, he or she should keep accurate records of braille projects completed, indicating when he or she served as lead transcriber. A listing of books and other materials transcribed, the length of time each project took, and other details will give potential employers or customers a clear picture of capabilities and experience.

Copies of certificates should be maintained in the portfolio. Samples of work, especially tactile graphics along with the equivalent print graphics, will also indicate the transcriber’s level of experience, as well as his decision making process, attention to detail, and knowledge of how people who are blind read braille and learn from tactile materials.

A concise resume should be written, which may take the help of professionals supervising the program or others. Some offenders feel that they have accomplished little in their lives and may be reluctant to work on a resume. But those who have participated in a braille program for a lengthy period of time can highlight braille certification(s) and experience transcribing projects on their resume. They can also list work skills learned in the braille transcription process — computer keyboarding, record keeping, and time management, for example. Experienced transcribers should take pride in their accomplishments, and this pride should be reflected in their resumes.

Letters of reference from program supervisors, wardens, and braille customers should be added to the portfolio if possible.

Caption below

Transcribers in the Mountain View Braille Unit in Gatesville, Texas, separate pages of braille as they are embossed.

Learning to use tools and equipment

Many different tools are needed to produce braille and tactile graphics, and experience using as many of these as possible will help with business operations. Learning how to operate and maintain braille production equipment — from scanners to braillers to computers to embossers — is also extremely important. While support services for this equipment may be available in prison, they may not be for the independent transcriber — especially not free of charge. The more transcribers know about the equipment they use, the less often these machines will have to be serviced by outside vendors.

Learning about “Braille as a Business”

While in prison, transcribers should learn as much as possible about the business aspect of braille production. Learning how jobs are estimated, pricing is determined, and invoices are tracked will provide vital information when setting up shop on the outside.

In addition to gaining this hands-on experience, NBA offers an excellent written workshop, called “Braille as a Business,” that provides detailed information on producing braille as an independent transcriber. Workshop materials can be ordered by contacting the National Braille Association. See Appendix F.

When developing a braille business, transcribers must determine the scope of services they will provide. Will they provide literary braille transcription only? Are they qualified to produce Nemeth or music braille? What about tactile graphics? How will proofreading be handled? Customers need to know exactly how all aspects of a project will be handled before they will be comfortable turning over a job.

Developing a comprehensive business plan

While NBA’s workshop “Braille as a Business” contains valuable information on the “business of braille,” it is not intended to cover all of the legal and financial aspects of small business operations. It is essential that a comprehensive business plan be developed which includes braille production as the core service offered to customers. Goals and strategies for business and professional development should be included in the plan, as well as a schedule for reviewing and revising goals and strategies.

The Small Business Administration is a source of extensive material to help entrepreneurs set up shop. Small Business Development Centers and other agencies can provide guidance and mentoring to start a business. A Small Business Planner guides individuals in creating business plans. The Internal Revenue Service offers small business publications, information about starting a business, and record keeping. For agency contact information see Appendix N.

Transcribers must follow the letter of the law in setting up an independent business. Permits or licenses may be required from government entities, and deadlines for submission of tax reports must be met. Prior to setting up shop, transcribers should thoroughly research laws regulating small businesses in their locale.

Woman at table reading braille

Transcribers producing high quality braille always keep the end user in mind as they focus on details and simplify tactile graphics.

Identifying financial needs and sources of support

Although this information will be part of the business plan, it warrants special attention.

Beginning transcribers should itemize the equipment, tools, and supplies that will be needed to start and operate a braille business — depending upon the scope of services offered. Much of this information is included in Appendix C of these guidelines, along with cost estimates for braille-specific equipment at the time of this printing. Current information should be gathered as the plan is being developed. Agencies such as the Small Business Administration can provide worksheets that will be helpful in developing accurate budgets.

Once a transcriber has completed the business plan, including information about the amount of money needed for start-up, potential sources of funding should be identified and contacted, and creative ways to share and stretch resources should be considered. For example, linking with other transcribers on the outside is a good way to save on equipment costs. However, linking with transcribers who are former offenders may be prohibited by the rules of release.

The National Prison Braille Network is currently working with individual agencies serving the blind to secure government funding for the Building Bridges with Braille initiative. Transcribers should contact the network when they are preparing for release to check the status of that program and determine if resources are available to help set up shop.

Research should be conducted on local, state, and federal reentry programs which may provide the support needed. Many public and private foundations and faith-based organizations support the successful reentry of offenders as well, and could be approached for start-up costs.

Small business loans can also be considered, but if this option is chosen, a viable plan to repay the loans must be included in the business plan. Stable employment is one indicator of successful reentry, so presenting a well- thought out business plan based on utilizing skills learned in prison to pursue a viable career on the outside could be a strong selling point.

Learning to use the Internet
Caption below.

Braille embosser

This is typically not possible until after release, but some prisons are allowing braille transcribers to learn how to access the Internet — on a limited, supervised basis, just prior to release — because they understand how important it is to operating a braille business independently. At any rate, accessing and learning to navigate the Internet should be done as soon as possible upon release. Transcribers who have never used the Internet should include professional training in their business plan, along with related costs.

The majority of braille files are transferred via the Internet today. In fact, some operations do not use paper braille or embossers at all. Files that are “braille ready” are attached to emails and sent across the country. The end user then embosses a paper copy (or copies). Some tactile graphics can be sent via email. Others have to be sent through the mail or a delivery service. These are some of the details that transcribers and their customers must clarify prior to developing a cost estimate for a job.

Linking with the national network of braille transcribers

An outline of network connections and plans to join associations and attend educational and networking conferences should be included in the business plan, along with associated costs. These provide excellent opportunities to promote braille businesses, network with colleagues, and advance braille skills. They also offer transcribers the opportunity to connect with others who will proofread for them or produce the tactile graphics they need.

Some associations that should be joined are listed below. Contact information can be found in Appendix F.

  • National Braille Association (NBA).
  • California Transcribers and Educators for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CTEBVI). Members do not need to be residents of California.
  • Building Bridges with Braille initiative (via the National Prison Braille Network at APH).
  • Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) — both national association and state or regional affiliates.

In addition to these steps to prepare a transition plan, inmate transcribers are advised to approach each transcription project as if their future employment will be based upon its quality. Transcribers who consistently produce high-quality braille that has few (if any) errors are in great demand. They can begin to build an impressive reputation even before they are released from prison.

Offenders should also make every effort to work well with others in the braille program. While this may go without saying, treating staff and other transcribers with respect, and compromising whenever possible, will not only gain respect but will eventually translate into cooperative relationships with employers and customers. Prison braille program supervisors are frequently contacted for references on transcribers, and no one wants to work with someone who is difficult, disrespectful, or produces sub-standard braille.

According to the National Institute of Justice, sustained employment within any industry is related to reduced recidivism, and job retention improves when former offenders are appropriately matched to careers based on their skills and interests. Prison braille program participants should each decide, as individuals, whether or not the skills and interests they developed while in prison will sustain them as a long-term career option.

Advertising services

One of the ways in which transcribers can advertise their services nationwide is by registering with the Accessible Media Producers (AMP) database operated by the American Printing House for the Blind. (See contact information in Appendix B). Individuals and agencies (including prison braille programs) that produce braille, large print, sound recordings, and braille files are encouraged to list their services on this database, free of charge. People across the country who are looking for accessible media producers can access this database and identify braille transcribers that fit their needs.

Networking with transcribers across the country is also a great way to find work. Job openings are posted in the NBA Bulletin and on the websites of agencies that hire transcribers. At regional and national conferences, transcribers can pick up work from others who may have more work than they can handle.

Establishing a website on the Internet following release and linking with related sites can help secure braille work as well.

Challenges

Participants in prison braille programs face the same challenges as all offenders do — both in prison and upon release. However, there are additional challenges that relate specifically to braille transcription as a career choice.

For the most part, the general public knows very little about braille and may not appreciate the complexities of transcription. It can be difficult for transcribers to explain what they do in enough detail for others to understand without getting lost in the particulars.

This is a frustration that transcribers in prison can have when dealing with corrections professionals, since their field of expertise is so far removed from the world of braille. Some corrections systems do not look favorably upon transition plans that include self-employment. For that reason, a well thought-out, clear, comprehensive business plan is essential.

The majority of people on the outside have no contact with braille either, and it may be difficult convincing family and friends that transcription is serious work and a viable career option. Websites of agencies that produce braille are good resources for answers to “most often asked questions” about braille and transcription. When participating transcribers are released from prison, they are no longer surrounded each day with others who understand and support their efforts. This is one reason why networking with other transcribers is so important.

Many offenders reintegrating into society do not have significant financial resources, and often have pre-existing financial obligations. Braille transcription will not pay the bills on release day, so a realistic plan that encompasses financial support — at least temporarily — is vital. Some offenders are able to borrow start-up funds, and some prisons will help “graduates” of their prison braille programs get started by allowing them to take their computer and personal resource materials home with them, and paying them to produce their first braille job on the outside.

In Their Own Words…

Caption below.

Operations at the Grafton Braille Service Center began in 1991. A full service program, the Grafton production center employs 14 men, a growing number of whom are Nemeth braille certified. The transcriber shown in this photo is creating a tactile graphic using thick aluminum foil.

Male transcriber, Braille Service Center, Correctional Institution, Grafton, Ohio

…Knowing that one day I could possibly be a mentor to someone who wants to learn braille transcription is a feeling that goes beyond belief. One day, I hope to be among the best in this field so that I can teach others to be the best also.

Paula Mauro, Director, Braille Excellence for Students and Teachers (BEST); Project Coordinator, Center for Instructional Supports and Accessible Materials (CISAM); Ohio State School for the Blind Outreach Program and Services; Columbus, Ohio

In a 2003 research report titled A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Ohio, LaVigoe and Thomson stated that within three years of release from prison, 37% of ex- prisoners returned to prison. The recidivism rate for transcribers participating in the braille program at the Grafton Correctional Institution is 0%. In the collection of nine years of statistics from the prison braille program at Grafton, Ohio, not one man who has gone through the program has returned to prison. The braille program not only teaches a person how to transcribe braille, but also provides all that the person needs to become a productive citizen within the community.

Holly Faris, Braille Production Coordinator, KCI Braille Services, Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women Pewee, Valley, Kentucky

KCI’s braille program has had a very positive impact on our braille transcribers. Not only are they learning a valuable skill they can use once released, but giving them the ability to help others by transcribing books into braille has helped them significantly. The have a better outlook on both the present and the future knowing they can utilize their skills once released.

Female transcriber, KCI Braille Services, Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, Pewee Valley, Kentucky

… I have gotten so much education for myself by doing braille; I am always doing a new book. When I transcribe a book, I not only practice my braille skills, but I have the chance to learn what is written inside the book as well. As I work on a history or English book, I learn history or English. Braille is a way that I have used to educate myself about the world.

The world was very different twenty-two years ago when I first arrived here. Computers weren’t part of most households and the Internet didn’t exist yet. I had absolutely no computer skills when I joined the program and no experience with any sort of technology. The (braille) program has taught me how to operate a variety of office machinery and software, opportunities that can help me reenter into the community that aren’t available to learn anywhere else in the prison system.

Transcriber using braillewriter

Housed within the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley, KCI Braille Services operates under the auspices of Kentucky Correctional Industries. It is a partnership among three entities: Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, Kentucky Correctional Industries, and the American Printing House for the Blind. The program operates with 15 women, and provides a full range of transcription and production services.

Female transcriber, KCI Braille Services, Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, Pewee Valley, Kentucky

…In the time I have been a part of KCI Braille Services (10 years) I have learned so many skills that go beyond transcribing books. (The program has) provided me with many opportunities to enhance my computer and typing skills. I have also been given training to use a variety of general office and braille specific equipment, including copiers, scanners, printers, embossers, binding machinery, and thermoforms (used to create copies of tactile graphics).

Most importantly, I have learned how to channel my creativity and energy into work that I love. I am constantly challenged to learn new formats to improve my skills…. There is a deep satisfaction for me in learning new things and improving myself daily. Braille is a personal challenge to me to become the best I can be.

Female transcriber, KCI Braille Services, Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, Pewee Valley, Kentucky

I am currently an inmate at Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women and have been a part of the Kentucky Correctional Industries Braille Services on-the-job-training program that works with assistance from the American Printing House for the Blind since its inception almost 10 years ago. In that time I have learned so much about braille, but even more about myself. At only 16, I began serving a 35 year sentence for murder. When I arrived at prison I had no education, no job skills, little family support and very poor interpersonal communication skills.

Since I was accepted into the program I have learned a multitude of job skills beyond the initial braille code. I’ve learned how to interact in a professional setting, how to use interpersonal office communication skills and how to function as part of a team, placing trust in my co-workers. I’ve learned how to focus and prioritize to put my responsibilities first, and also that responsibility extends beyond work hours, that my job doesn’t necessarily end when I clock out for the day.

I’ve gained a sense of pride in myself through the work and for the first time I want to go the extra mile and take opportunities offered to me to be a better transcriber and a better person. The program inspired me to go back to school where I earned two college degrees (one in art and one in science) and maintained a 4.0 GPA which is something I would have never thought possible before. Now I not only believe in myself but my supervisors and co-workers do too. Their belief is something I hold very dear to me and hope to not ever lose.

I was given the opportunity to continue on and enroll in an advanced braille certification course. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) helped supply me with all the materials and information needed to take the Nemeth braille transcription course for mathematics and scientific notation. I was able to pass the exam and earn my certification with the help of my co-workers and APH. Since then I’ve moved on and begun the next course in the hopes of getting a third certification in music. I’ve learned that I don’t have to do everything myself, that sometimes it’s best to work as a team or to ask for help when I need it. Trusting in my co-workers and my supervisors to guide me in the right direction has been one of the hardest but most beneficial lessons I have learned.

I plan on continuing on the braille transcribing career path once released for several reasons. I believe that this is a job skill that will help me support myself. I want to not have to rely on outside assistance; I hope to be independent for the first time in my life.

Braille transcribing is also something that makes me feel good about myself. I get a satisfaction out of my work in knowing that my work has meaning. It’s something I can take pride in. I truly enjoy the work and I feel confident in knowing that I can do it.

Female transcriber, SCI Cambridge Springs, BrailleMates, Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania

…During the last seven and half years, I have transcribed novels, textbooks, worksheets, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, standard letters, playing cards, greeting cards, menus, financial reports, and various pamphlets. I have also worked with other braille students and explained the workings of the braille department here to visitors. I have learned to type, file, fill out paperwork, keep track of supplies, and keep track of hours worked and material transcribed by each person in the braille department.

…It has been a pleasure to learn to read and write braille and to transcribe for blind children in the public school system. Some of those we have done work for through the years have now graduated and gone on to college. It is an awesome thing to know that we as a group contributed to their learning and that all of us were so careful to do the very best work that we could so that they could learn what they needed to know.

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

…It is refreshing and oft times I have firsthand experience witnessing the transformation from hopelessness to hopefulness (of the men in the Miami Braille Project), which sometimes makes me wonder if I am the fortunate one in this braille program. These milestones bring tears to my eyes as I witness participants’ increased motivation and positive dialogue.

These men will face enumerable challenges upon release, and they are not only aware but also well prepared to face societal challenges. I see in these men: eagerness to learn, pride in their work, greater attention to detail, becoming team players, learning self discipline within prison barriers, becoming innovative, and developing interpersonal skills.

Male transcriber, Miami Correctional Facility, Miami Braille Project Bunker Hill, Indiana

…During my incarceration, I have earned three college degrees (AS, BS, BA), each one with Highest Honors and a perfect GPA of 4.0. However, that pales in comparison to the fulfillment I receive from being part of the braille community of transcribers. This program offers me the opportunity to salvage the remainder of my life in the pursuit of excellence as a productive member of society.

Male transcriber, Miami Correctional Facility, Miami Braille Project Bunker Hill, Indiana

Braille transcribing is going to give me the opportunity to make a legitimate and fulfilling living, and at doing that I will be able to be a positive influence to my children and family.

Male transcriber, Miami Correctional Facility, Miami Braille Project Bunker Hill, Indiana

…[the braille program] means better opportunities for me upon my release; it has sharpened my vocabulary and typing skills. This program has helped me to keep my mind focused on the good and positive things in life. I am grateful for this program and I would love to be one of the braille program success stories.

Male transcriber, ICC Braille Transcription Center, Idaho Correctional Center, Boise, Idaho

…I have been incarcerated just over four years and will be eligible for parole in a little less than two years, but I am much more than just a convict or prisoner. I am a father to my children, a son to my parents, and a friend to my friends and family who love me and support me. I am also a dreamer, a believer, and a doer. I take full responsibility for my actions, and am actively working and striving to make any and all corrections and adjustments in my life so that I may live a full and productive life.

Coming to prison has been an experience that I find difficult to put into words. Though there have been tremendous losses, hurts and sadness, there have also been tremendous gains, joys, and happiness. Prison has provided a time to quietly reflect and re-evaluate my life. To put everything into perspective and to see what truly matters in life. It’s as if everything has finally come into focus for the first time. It’s taking my eyes off myself, and focusing on serving others and helping them reach their fullest potential. It’s living life on purpose and with a purpose.

When I was introduced to braille, it was an “ah-ha” moment for me. It was the realization that through braille, I can truly help others and truly make a positive difference in other people’s lives. While in prison, not only have I had the time to learn braille, but I have the time to learn braille well, while helping others at the same time. What an incredibly rewarding and exciting opportunity.

I began studying braille in 2005, and received my certification in literary braille in October of 2006. Since then, I have been studying Nemeth braille, and am currently working on the Nemeth braille final exam. I also have spent an extensive amount of time working on tactile graphics and have completed over three thousand graphics on a Quick Tac graphics program. I would like to specialize in the tactile graphic area of braille if possible. I also repair Perkins Manual Braillers that are sent in, and I hope to be able to continue repairing the manual braillers as a free service once I am released as an additional service to the community.

I fully plan on pursuing a career as a braille transcriber once released.


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