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Braille program to offer York inmates job, purpose

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Cynthia Stubbs walked out of the South Carolina prison where she had served 14 years for drug and gun trafficking, and within a month of her 2011 release, the 53-year-old was back inside a prison in North Carolina.

This time, she walked through the gates as an employee. She manages male inmates in a prison Braille program that provides tactile literature and graphics to people who are blind or visually impaired.

Anita McGraw, 60, also learned to transcribe Braille while serving a lengthy sentence in the Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, S.C., for a drunken driving accident that caused a death. She was released on parole last year to an apprenticeship program in Kentucky and now has her own business producing Braille products. On Wednesday, she said she filed her income taxes, becoming a contributor for the first time in 16 years rather than a burden on the system.

"I promise you, if it were not for the Braille program, I would probably be homeless right now," McGraw said in a phone interview. She was a registered nurse, but returning to that career was not an option due to her felony conviction.  

The two women participated in the American Printing House for the Blind's prison Braille program, which the Louisville-based nonprofit announced this past week is coming to the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in East Lyme. Within the next couple of months, a select group of about 10 of the women's prison inmates will begin learning Braille, a system of raised dots that allows those who can't see well, or at all, to take in words and graphics. 

After about a year, the women will become certified by the Library of Congress and start learning the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics. They'll eventually produce textbooks and graphics for Connecticut students who are blind or visually impaired in grades kindergarten to 12.

'Giving back to the kids'

The prison Braille program at York will be a partnership between the American Printing House for the Blind, Department of Correction and the state Department of Rehabilitation Services' Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind. The J. Walton Bissell Foundation of West Hartford awarded APH a $26,000 grant to buy computers and other equipment needed to launch the program, including a Perkins Braille embosser, translation software and Braille paper.

"I'm so excited," said Nancy Mothersele, Braille coordinator for the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind. "It's a win-win situation. They're giving back to the kids and learning a unique skill that is really needed."

Mothersele said a Braille program has operated out of the Cheshire Correctional Institution, a state prison for men, since 1996, but has been reduced in size as the male prisoners were released or transferred to other facilities. York is the only state prison for women in Connecticut, so there's little risk of the women in the Braille program being transferred. Also, Mothersele said, there is a "beautiful spot" on the Niantic prison grounds for a Braille shop.

The remaining Braille prison workers at Cheshire — many have been released to employment in the industry, she said — will be proofing the work of the female inmates at York, she said. State officials expect that the prison Braille program, which eventually could expand to produce materials for other states, would save money. Connecticut also no longer would have to purchase the Braille products from an outside source.

Mothersele said 70 to 80 school-age children in Connecticut use Braille and require a variety of products. While software now enables the digital transcription of print to Braille, workers need to know how to code and format Braille files before they are sent to an embosser, which is a machine that produces Braille.

'It heals them'

The American Printing House for the Blind has since 1879 received funds from Congress to research, develop and manufacture educational aids for people below the college level who are blind or visually impaired. Other organizations had prison Braille programs, and in 2000, APH started its own in the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. There are now 40 prison Braille programs across the country, and each October, APH hosts a conference for members of the National Prison Braille Network.

"I've traveled to many prison Braille programs over the years," said Jayma Hawkins, coordinator of the National Prison Braille Program for APH. "The most consistent feedback I get (from inmates) is that it heals them. These are grown men in Folsom Prison. And they grow them big there. Men and women both, when they touch their first dot of Braille, it starts to heal them. It touches a place in their heart they never knew they had."

J. Gary Mudd, vice president of public affairs for APH, said he learned Braille after he went blind at 12 years old.

"Braille is not easy to learn," he said. "You go from reading with your eyes to reading with your fingers. Regardless of what people may think, your sense of touch does not get better if you go blind."

The APH has a nationwide re-entry program for prisoners called the Braille Transcriber Apprenticeship Program. Prison Braille workers who are released on parole go to Louisville for a two- to six-month program to refine their skills. If they want to go into business for themselves, APH helps them obtain a license and sends them home with a laptop, Braille software and their first contract to produce a Braille textbook. Some of the apprentices go to work full-time for APH, which employs 300 people and produces talking books, Braille menus (including the one used by McDonald's) and other products in addition to textbooks and graphics.

"In our 17 years of being involved with prison Braille all over the country, the recidivism rate (for participants) is practically nothing," Mudd said. "They have involvement in something valuable to them and they have skills they can market."

Stubbs, the prison Braille graduate who now works at the Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg, managed up to 33 workers, some of them serving life sentences. She said she had made up her mind to change her lifestyle as soon as the judge banged the gavel and sentenced her to 16 years away from her children.

"I just can't begin to tell you how it makes you feel to know you are sitting in prison and you're responsible for a child or student being able to get their education because of what you're doing," she said. "I couldn't think of any way to give back other than what I was doing. That encouraged me to take it as far as I could."


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