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Braille Behind Bars: Blind Arizonans receive textbooks made by prisoners

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

PHOENIX — For countless students, reading brings foreign concepts and knowledge of the world around them within arms reach. But for Maggie Lindsay, the knowledge is right at her finger tips.

As she reached for one of her dozens of hand-bound, custom textbooks, Maggie began to flip through the pages, proudly displaying the graphs, text and graphics all made just for her.

She never looked at the page. She just ran her finger across every bump and ridge.

Over the past several years, Maggie has devoured some of the toughest subjects you can imagine. Calculus, European history, Latin and more.

For a high school senior like Maggie, you’d never expect her to have such a diverse and rigorous course load. Not because she isn’t capable, but because those hand-bound books on thick pages wouldn’t exist without her… and the help of about 60 prisoners.

Maggie has been a beneficiary of the Foundation for Blind Children’s Prison Braille Program since she lost her sight in 2016.

The now-18-year-old was born knowing her eye sight was only temporary.

Maggie’s father, Walter Lindsay, explained what it was like when she was born.

“Maggie was born as a 24 week premie,” he said. “24 weeks and three days. Three days earlier and they wouldn’t have even tried to save her. She was born able to hold in [our hands].”

Coming into this world so small, Maggie’s oxygen levels were low and her eyes never fully developed.

“When she was three, one eye was replaced with a prosthetic and she had some vision in the other eye until she was about 14,” he explained.

Maggie recalls sitting in class that day.

“I opened up my iPad to write down the homework for the first class of the day and even though the font was like 36 or 48 or something huge, I couldn’t read it,” she remembered. “The contrast between the letters in the background was just so bad. That’s the day I lost my vision.”

For a while, she lost more than just her vision.

“I was super depressed,” she said. “My grades plummeted. I was so emotionally drained that I couldn’t stay awake during the day. I’d fall asleep in class. I had a bit of an identity crisis.”

But with Maggie’s tenacity, that didn’t last forever.

“It took me a really long time, possibly a year maybe, to finally admit to myself that I am blind and to use that word,” she said. “That word is a lot more blunt than to say ‘visually impaired.’ That word implies that I am not trying to get around that fact. I own it and admit it to the point that if I had the chance to get my vision back, I wouldn’t.”

Much of this change came from adjusting to the new ways she now related to world around her. This meant her love of school and reading now came in the form of audio books and braille.

That’s when she began receiving textbooks from the Foundation for Blind Children’s Prison Braille Program.

The program certifies inmates to transcribe braille to create textbooks, tests, quizzes and more for blind students in Arizona for free.

“A lot of the books that I’ve read in my curriculum don’t exist, in braille, anywhere else, except that they made them for me,” she said. “That has been really wonderful because I would not have been able to get the curriculum that I’ve had.”

However, it wasn’t until recently that she and her family learned exactly where those books were coming from.

“I didn’t even know,” said Maggie’s mom, Megan Lindsay, with disbelief. “I didn’t even know this existed.”

Although, you’d think if anyone knew about a program like this, it’d be Megan.

“I actually come from a background in corrections,” she said with a smile. “My mother was a supervisor with Maricopa County Juvenile Court and I worked in the detention center for several years on the units with the kids.”

Not only does Megan look at this program from the perspective of a mother and a corrections officer but she’s also a teacher. This program seems to meet at the intersection of some of the most definitive aspects of her life.

Megan sees it as a chance at true, human connection.

“The idea that these inmates who are experiencing a lot of that same separation that I think that Maggie experiences, being separated from a world that they really want to be a part of and they can’t experience it the way that they want to,” Megan said.

“What’s going to help them, I think most, is to connect with other people. Right? To really feel like their investment matters, that they matter to society.”

As Megan sat at her kitchen table, the the setting sun streaming in, her voice began to crack as she began to think of the men responsible for making maps of Europe, Greek tragedies and the circumference of circle a reality for her daughter.

“I would say thank you to those who did it,” she said as a single tear began to roll down her cheek. “I wish I could see them and tell them. I think I would want them to see the kind of person that Maggie has become because of what theses people did for her.

“They had to learn something really hard… it’s really hard for sighted people to do braille. They made the choice to do something better. They made the choice to give back and connect to people, not because they were going to get fame and fortune but just because they believed in it. So I feel like we need to believe in them a lot more and we need to believe in these programs a lot more.”

Now as Maggie heads into her final semester of high school, she is just like everyone else. She is waiting to hear back on her college applications, she is anxious about what decision she’ll make and maybe even a tad hesitant to leave home.

Her parents are just like any other parents preparing to send off their first born: excited for her future, sad to see her go and nervous for what the future may hold.

What they don’t seem to question is Maggie’s ability to go forward and live an independent life. A freedom that’s been enabled by men behind bars.

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