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Braille Behind Bars: Recidivism rate drops for prisoners in braille program

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

PHOENIX — Tiny, green succulents sit on a windowsill as the mid-morning sun streams into a tiny, warm apartment.

There are a few things on the wall and some small furniture.

It’s quiet. There are just a few cars passing by outside and inside, and the sound of rhythmic typing.

For many, it may not sound like much, but to one man, it’s his sanctuary.

John is one of a handful of certified braillists in the country, trained entirely inside Arizona prisons.

He was a part of one of the five Foundation for Blind Children Prison Braille programs. John was also among the initial four inmates selected when the braille program first came to his prison yard.

With nostalgia in his eyes, the smaller, older man recalled the the rigid difference between general population and the secluded braille program.

“Particularly, in my yard, the braille program is isolated from the population, so we used to call that our sanctuary,” he said. “We would go over there and just do our thing. It was so quiet, no interruptions, nothing.

“You know, in the prison, it’s very complicated in the jail yard. So that was our sanctuary.”

While in prison, John was trained in niche aspects of braille including math, Spanish and tactiles. These specialty areas take nearly a decade to learn and become certified in through the U.S. Library of Congress.

While that time commitment is daunting to many, it was a welcomed opportunity for John.

“I liked to do something for the community when I served my time,” he said. “Not just waste my time in there or something. It’s something like a purpose of living. You know you live in there, in the prison, but you know that you’re still productive. You’re still doing something good for the community.”

Braille became John’s safeguard within prison and a lifeline in hoping he could return to normalcy once he was released from prison.

The Foundation for Blind Children offered John a job as an independent contractor with them the day before he got out of prison.

“They offered it to me right away,” he said with a smile and a laugh. “It’s just so nice to know you’re wanted.”

This is what the CEO of Foundation for Blind Children, Marc Ashton, credits for the true reform this program creates.

“These inmates come out and become entrepreneurs from day one,” he marveled. “They set up a shop, the start contracting with the Foundation for Blind Children for braille and they immediately start contracting with other states. There is such a demand that these prisoners are coming out and earning a paycheck within days of getting out.”

According to Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 18% of those released from Arizona will return to jail within 6 months. That number jumps up to 39% over three years.

In the past four years, none of the four inmates released from this program has returned to prison. In that same time period, they’ve also doubled the size of the program, allowing even more inmates to participate.

While employment may be one reason these reformed convicts may be staying out of jail, John also acknowledged the importance of familiarity.

“The working conditions, just perfectly fit,” he said. “I said in there I had my sanctuary but out here, I have my same sanctuary.”

The reason these men remain out of the system could be a combination of steady income, secluded work and the feeling of purpose it brings them, regardless, keeping them out of prison is saving the state thousands of dollars.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, during the 2018 fiscal year, the average cost to house an inmate was $71.13 per day. That amounts to nearly $26,000 a year. This means, by keeping these four reformed convicts out of prison saves the state more than $100,000 each year.

While Ashton believes that money is important, he also knows that it goes beyond that.

“It sounds strange but the prison braille program, one word to describe it is freedom,” Ashton said. “It gives these inmates freedom from the yard, it gives them freedom when they get out, but it gives our kids freedom to learn and freedom to grow and freedom the to go to college. So, it sounds strange but the Foundation for Blind Children and the prison braille program gives inmates and our kids freedom.”

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