Blind World Magazine

Prisoners providing braille textbooks for schoolchildren.

December 10, 2005.
Centre Daily Times - Centre County,PA,USA.

HARDWICK - When a blind student touches a braille textbook in a Georgia public school, there's a good chance the book was produced at Men's State Prison.

Surrounded by concrete walls, 11 prison inmates labor daily in a converted classroom they call "The Braille Cell." They transcribe written text into the raised dots that can be recognized by braille readers. Wearing tattoos and blue-striped, white prison uniforms, they sit at computers and churn out educational material. Currently they're working on a high school literature text and a fifth-grade history of Georgia.

The men are serving long sentences for serious crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping and child molestation. By producing a much-needed product for visually impaired students, they are turning their punishment into something useful.

"I've been here 15 years. This is one of the best things I've seen," said Ricky Siniard, 50. "Being in prison is one thing. Sitting here idle and not able to do anything, it was hard to do time that way."

Siniard, serving 60 years for kidnapping, rape and robbery, was one of the first to join the program.

It began, said fellow inmate Shawn Greiner, in 1997. The prison got a new teacher to work with deaf and blind inmates. Men's State Prison, which houses elderly and disabled prisoners, usually has some who are blind or deaf. A handful of sighted prisoners volunteered to learn braille and help teach it to those who couldn't see. Their job quickly turned to writing braille.

In the beginning, the volunteers transcribed prison rules and regulations. They had an old Perkins Brailler, a seven-key typewriter that produces the six-dot matrix familiar to braille readers. They scrounged up some surplus computers, too. Inmate Jack Pendleton recalled that some were held together with duct tape. Greiner said they came without manuals, so the prisoners had to figure out how to use them.

In 2001, they began work on a National Library of Congress braille transcription course. By 2003, four inmates had received Library of Congress certification. At about the same time, the Georgia Instructional Materials Center - a special project of the state Department of Education - contracted with the prison system to provide braille textbooks for the primary and secondary grades. Now "The Braille Cell" is crowded with better computers and prison-built computer desks supplied by the state.

Last year the prisoners produced 4,147 pages of braille and "tactile graphics" - pictures rendered in raised dots.

"That was a major accomplishment for us," said program supervisor Jimmy Futrell. But this year they will more than double that number, producing more than 10,000 pages.

Even at that rate, they are not able to keep up with the demand.

"The men at the prison now are beginning to fill a major gap that's existed in the past in acquiring textbooks," said Jim Downs, a technical services specialist with the Georgia Instructional Materials Center. "We didn't have the capacity to go out and do any textbooks on our own."

Downs said his agency provides between 800 and 1,000 braille textbooks in any given year. Many of them are already published and can simply be purchased. But Downs said each year there's a need for as many as 200 new ones.

"To get a new title done in braille is extremely time-consuming. It's very exacting. It may take six months to a year to get a textbook done," he said.


Nancy Lacewell is director of government and community affairs for the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky. It bills itself as the oldest and largest organization providing specialized materials, products and services for visually impaired people in the United States.

Lacewell said modern education policies have created a huge unfilled need for braille textbooks. Decades ago, she said, blind students mostly went to boarding schools. With all the students in one place and taking the same courses, only a few textbooks were needed. Now, as blind students are mainstreamed, they're in a host of public schools in their home communities. And each school system has its own preferred textbooks.

"You've got all this site-based decision making and school councils that get to choose their own books, which has caused complete bedlam for blind kids," Lacewell said. "There's no way we can keep up with the current transcribers, with the need for textbooks."

Lacewell said out of 3,000 textbooks that are published each year in the United States, no more than 250 or 300 are transcribed into braille.

"Nobody sees any end in sight for the need," she said.

In years past, she said, braille transcribers tended to be stay-at-home mothers who had enough time and motivation to turn out braille textbooks for their children. It was volunteer work.

As the need increased, braille transcription became a paid occupation. And it became a desirable job for another group with time on its hands: prisoners. The American Printing House for the Blind's Web site lists prison braille transcription programs in three federal prisons and 19 state prison systems. Men's State Prison, just south of Milledgeville, is the only Georgia correctional institution producing braille. Georgia authorities hope eventually to expand the program to other prisons.

Lacewell said trained, certified braille transcriptionists can work at home under contract with publishers, making it an ideal "cottage industry" for a former prison inmate who might meet obstacles in finding a more conventional job.

In the past two or three years, Lacewell said, she has heard of at least a dozen ex-prisoners who have gone into full-time transcription, "producing braille and doing a great job of it, making a decent living."

Getting into the braille program at the Hardwick prison is competitive. Inmates must pass an aptitude test and have a clean disciplinary record. Currently there are eight certified transcriptionists and three prisoners getting on-the-job training through Middle Georgia Technical College. Even though they now use computers that translate text to braille, the inmates must learn to read and understand braille for themselves to ensure that it is formatted properly on the page. The work is edited after it is produced, to check for accuracy and appropriateness.

The prisoners are not paid, but they come to the work eagerly.

Futrell, an educator with 31 years of experience teaching special populations, said he has supervised free-world employees whose work ethic isn't as good.

"These inmates just jump at the chance to do work," he said.

Recently, the prisoners were visited by a group of state officials and volunteers from a regional committee on blindness. With them was Bernace Murray, a DeKalb County resident who lost his sight as an adult. He eagerly told the prisoners how much it means to him and other blind people to find written material in braille. It often isn't easy to find, he said.

"I do without a lot in my life when it comes to printed material," he said.

Murray had high praise for the work the prisoners are doing.

"The job that you're doing is paramount, and it's going to make a difference in the blind community," he said. "A push has got to go out and encourage more things to be written in braille. ... I salute you for what you do."

To contact Don Schanche Jr., call 744-4395 or e-mail

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