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Braille Behind Bars: Arizona inmates create books, tests for blind students

First in a three-part series exploring an Arizona prison program through which inmates create braille materials for the state’s visually impaired students.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Ariz. — A rough, freckled hand reached up to round-rimmed glasses and pushed away a tear.

The sound of sniffles and muffled coughs hung in the air for only a moment before the dozen or so men simultaneously turned back to their computer screens and began their quiet, meticulous work yet again in the small, stark classroom.

If it weren’t for their matching bright orange jumpsuits, you’d probably forget these men were prisoners.

Inside Arizona’s Kingman Prison you’ll find a lot more than you’d expect.

Some of the men are graphic designers, others musicians or computer whizzes, all holding the same title: braillist.

Nearly 60 inmates currently residing in Arizona prisons are responsible for creating and transcribing the textbooks, novels, quizzes and tests used by blind students throughout the state.

According to the American Printing House for the Blind and the National Prison Braille Network, Arizona is one of 28 states taking part in the nearly 43 different prison braille programs across the U.S. made up of nearly 1,000 inmates.

However, Arizona’s inmates have catapulted the state into national acclaim for their high level of production.

Last year alone, they transcribed more than 164,000 individual pages of braille for Arizona students. This includes quizzes and tests produced for the Braille on Demand program, which are transcribed within 48 hours so visually impaired students can take quizzes and tests alongside their sighted peers.

“[Arizona’s programs] are highly rated for the mere fact that they have support from the vision community,” National Prison Braille Network coordinator Jayma Hawkins told KTAR News 92.3 FM in an email.

“They have vision officials who come in and support the program [and] the people and provide resources. Other programs may just have a correctional officer who oversees it.”

This support comes from the Foundation for Blind Children, a Phoenix-based nonprofit.

There are five foundation-funded prison braille programs in place in Arizona, with the organization footing the bill for nearly 20 years.

Kingman Prison National Prison Braille Network

(KTAR News Photo/Matt Bertram)

The privately funded program ensures that neither blind students nor the state have to pay a dime for school materials that would be freely provided to sighted students.

Without the program, visually impaired students would have to spend thousands of dollars on a single textbook, an expense Marc Ashton, the foundation’s CEO, knows all too well.

“[My son] Max’s braille textbook for his precalculus class, as a senior in high school, cost us about $16,000 to make,” he said.

“If we didn’t have the prison braille program, the school district couldn’t afford it, Arizona couldn’t afford it. This program not only gives access to textbooks and words, language and school work, but it also saves the state hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, every year.”

Ashton said that’s why when he visited the Kingman Prison in November, he felt it was imperative that he let each of the men involved know the kind of impact their work makes.

“I wanted them to know about the girl who thinks that braille got her into college,” he said. “Those guys gave her back some of her eyesight in the way of words. It’s those stories.

“It’s the kid who gets to play football now, the kid who gets to explore the world who is visually impaired and they’re learning. They’re learning like every other kid does and it’s because of these guys [in the prison].”

It was those stories that brought the inmates to tears that day.

“We know that we help people but to hear stories like that is hugely impactful,” one man said. “It brings up a lot of emotions and feelings of ‘at least we can help in some part.'”

While blinking back tears, another inmate in the program explained how hearing stories about the students they’re helping makes all the difference.

“It’s like putting gas in our tanks,” he said. “It just fires us up to give and go even harder.”

However, these men do not believe the good they’re doing negates the wrongs of their past.

“You know, we get it. We messed up, but we get it,” one man said. “We’re doing something about it so that we can be a positive for when we get out there [outside of prison].”

These men were convicted of taking from society, now they see the conviction it takes to give back through groups like the Foundation for Blind Children.

“There is hope for inmates that we can provide good back to the communities,” said a man used to wearing his orange jumpsuit. “There is rehabilitation going on. It’s not just a throwaway system where you house people who have made bad choices, done wrong things. [The program] needs the support, the more community support of ‘look at this program, look at what they’ve done, look at how impactful it can be.’ I think that’s crucial.”

Many of the men involved also noted how connected they feel to those with disabilities.

“We know we do the Braille on Demand and that allows [blind] kids to be integrated with the other kids,” he said. “Then they’re not ostracized. They get to feel like they’re a part of the group. You know … we can identify with that.”

Ultimately, many of those involved explained that whether you’re a prisoner, a person with a disability or someone in between, we all just want the same things.

“We just want to be ‘normal,’ or not ostracized or not looked at differently, just liked the blind population,” one man expressed. “Anything you can do to just make them feel like they’re just like everyone else … that’s huge.”

However, this isn’t just a feel-good moment for those involved. These men know that their involvement means an opportunity at a better future when they get out of prison.

“It’s meant more than just me sitting here doing nothing,” one inmate said. “To give back to the community while I’m here and also to give back when I get out gives me a hope for my future. I’m trying not to come back, and I think this has pushed me in the right direction with that goal.”

Imagine, the blind might be shedding the light these prisoners need to see a brighter future.

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