Prison Braille Programs

By Jean Trounstine

I can't say I'm nuts about Texas.  Guns. Trucks.  Giant Highways.  Death Row.  But there's a fascinating program in the Mountain View Women's Prison outside Temple,Texas, where more than 90 inmates take almost two years of training to work in the Braille translation facility and produce about 5,000 to 10,000 Braille pages per month. The Houston Chronicle reported this story in December.  Braille was developed in the early 19th century by Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight to a childhood accident., and it begins with six-dot coded letters, words and punctuation.  Photo courtesy corrections.com

In the picture to the right, a woman works with what is called, "digital tactile graphics," one of the skills that add to women becoming certified in Braille.  Most of what they produce is for elementary and secondary students who are blind. In this 610 person prison, a woman could work in Braille– if she is accepted into the program — or she could train dogs for the handicapped in the kind of program I wrote about in an earlier post. But yep,she could also be sentenced to death.

Random you say, a program in braille in a prison?  I agree that much of what is offered behind bars seems chosen because someone got an idea and ran with it.  At Framingham, when I worked behind bars, the women had a bonsai tree program and they also made flags a la Betsy Ross.  Prison industries is not what I would call "logical."  Some would say labor is cheap and prisoners are used, sometimes abused,more than taught skills.  In the "Women in Building Trades" at Framingham, in the first years, women were not using tools because tools were not allowed behind bars for them!

But training someone to be a Braille transcriber seems worthwhile even if it seems somewhat random because the jobs earn real money ($50,000 a year says the Chronicle) and may help women with re-entry, a true sore spot for prisons, nation-wide.

Mountain View is the only prison in Texas which has this program but according to the National Prison Braille Network, there are over 36 programs operating in 26 states. In Mountain View, women get a yearlong program in some basics such as math,music and foreign language.  Then they work on computersbut only after accomplishing the "vintage Perkins Brailler, a manual typewriter that uses keystrokes to emboss raised dots on sheets of paper."

(First published on Justice With Jean and used here with permission.)

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Jean Trounstine:  Jean Trounstine is an activist, author and professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts who worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays with prisoners. Her highly-praised book about that work, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison has been featured on NPR, The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad.