By Christopher Zoukis
They may look hard to figure out for most, but a whole lot of raised dots are translating to new opportunities for a group of female inmates in New Hampshire.
The state’s department of education has joined up with the New Hampshire Department of Corrections to teach a handful of female prisoners how to transcribe learning and reading materials into Braille.
The women will complete their training by the end of 2017, and then will go to work as transcribers on materials from the department of education and the American Printing House for the Blind.
Molly Martel is one of the 14 women in the Hampshire program, and she looks forward to transcribing menus, textbooks and novels into Braille. She’s currently serving her fifth year of a 20-40 year sentence for murdering a friend. “To know I could actually do something good for somebody, that is good to know,” Martel said in a media interview.
Nicole Belonga is another inmate that is happy to be learning Braille. She’s working on a 15-30 year sentence for manslaughter in the death of her daughter, and knows that gaining employment once she is released will be an uphill battle. “I’m scared,” she said in a media interview. “It’s going to be pretty hard to get a job, and I’m not delusional about it. To know that it was something that I could get certified to do when I am home was a big draw for me.”
The training is not easy. To learn Braille, each student has to memorize the Braille cell, which is made up of six possible dot configurations in two columns. After learning how to write in Braille, students must slowly start the transcription process, first by transcribing words, then moving on to sentences before tackling full documents. In the prison, the ladies must learn the Braille cell visually, not by touch. Staring at the dots for long periods of time can take a toll on the eyes, but most are determined to push through and become acclimatized to this unique method of reading after several weeks. To achieve certification, each inmate must submit a transcribed 35-page document to the Library of Congress.
The New Hampshire Braille transcription program was created to give the State’s female inmates work skills and experience, while also helping to ease the expanding need for Braille transcribers in region. It’s one of about 30 such prison programs nationwide.
Many are familiar with Louis Braille, and credit him as the inventor of this language for the blind, but he was actually building on something called “night writing” that was invented by Charles Barbier in the early 1800s. Barbier saw soldiers use lamps to read combat messages after dark – a move that showed their position to the enemy and resulted in their deaths. He created a series of raised dots so the soldiers could read by touch instead of sight. It was a noble effort, but Barbier’s system was a bit cumbersome.
At the age of 11, Braille, who was not born blind, but accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with an awl when he was young, modified Barbier’s night writing, making it more efficient and easier to decode. It took Braille nearly nine years to perfect his system.
The National Federation for the Blind estimates that 2.3 percent (7,358,400) of non-institutionalized American adults (ages 16-75) have a visual disability. According to information collected in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Justice, 7.1 percent of state and federal prisoners suffered from vision impairment.
When one thinks of the prison population it’s easy to forget that it’s comprised of a very diverse mix of able-bodied and differently-abled people. With vision impairment being an issue both in and out of prison, programs where inmates can learn an employable skill such as Braille transcription benefit society as whole.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.