Blind World Magazine

Braille Behind Bars.

Keloland TV, South Dakota USA.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006.

Inmates at South Dakota's State Penitentiary are helping to bridge communication barriers. For years, they have translated books using Braille, but now, they are also producing Braille graphics.

The Braille alphabet allows the visually impaired to read words and sentences by touching raised symbols on a page. Now, students who can't see will also be able to "read" graphs, maps and pictures. In fact, they're charting new territory by becoming the first prison in the country to publish pictures for the blind.

"They can actually feel what the picture is, and these inmates are manufacturing this, they are kind of setting the standard for the industry," said Bob Rae, director of Pheasantland Industries, the prison-run company that operates the penitentiary's Braille unit.

The images are called "tactile", because they can be read by touch. Many of the books the inmates translate are textbooks for blind students to use in school.

"As you and I grew up with geography books, math books, science books, half of the texts are actually pictures," Rae said.

Pictures that, in the past, were usually not included in the Braille translation because they took too long to make. But at 25 cents an hour, these inmates are carefully creating raised patterns and keys that someone who can't see can still understand.

"There's not a lot of interesting jobs in a prison, something that really makes you think," said Toby Ferguson.

Ferguson is an inmate who leads the Braille unit. He has achieved the highest level of certification a Braille translator can reach. Tackling Braille graphics is his latest mental challenge-one that's also become a bit of a headache.

"It would be easier if we had a model to build this on," Ferguson said. Ferguson developed the procedures the inmates now follow to translate books. "Once it gets here, right away we rip the binding off of the book and we run it through our computer scanners then we have groups that plan these graphics out," he explained.

Inmates use computers to key in the text, but creating graphics is still done by hand. The process takes a tremendous amount of time and patience. A simple English book can take two to three months to complete. A social studies book filled with maps and graphs? Six months.

"We edit out all of the unnecessary information and make sure its presented in a way that's useful for the kid," Ferguson said.

Accuracy is one of the most important goals when you are working with Braille graphics. Just one mistake can completely change a pictures meaning, which means you'll have to start over.

"So we try one thing and is that doesn't work we try something else and if that doesn't work we try something else, until we get just the right mix," he said.

The operation is still evolving, but the work being produced here is in high demand.

"We're growing more and more in demand and we have to make sure we don't grow out of what we can handle," Rae said.

Braille textbooks made at the penitentiary are shipped to libraries and schools, not just in South Dakota, but as far away as California and Texas. "They're dedicated to what they are doing. It gives them self-esteem, they feel better about themselves and they don't get in trouble," Rae said.

"Being a part of that is something everyone in here is excited about, its actually pretty cool. It's not just a normal job," Ferguson said.

And among the thousands of pages of Braille these inmates have produced, lies a sense of pride, knowing South Dakota's confined are helping the blind. A total of 30 inmates work in the Braille Unit, nine are certified in Braille by the Library of Congress, and three more are expected to reach that status soon.,47354

End of article.

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