Program Provides Ex-Offenders with Marketable Skills; Expands Production of Braille Materials

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An enhanced training program designed to teach Braille transcription, computer skills and business techniques to soon-to-be-released offenders could expand the quantity of printed materials available for blind and visually impaired persons – while providing ex-offenders marketable skills designed to reduce recidivism rates.

Known as Providing Real Opportunities for Income through Technology (PROFITT), the program is being evaluated at a maximum-security correctional facility in Texas. Once completed and approved, the PROFITT curriculum will be made available to other correctional facilities interested in starting or enhancing Braille training programs.  The project was funded by the Second Chance Act, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

An expansion of earlier Braille training programs, PROFITT has been developed through a partnership of the National Braille Press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Beyond Braille skills, PROFITT teaches broader professional skills, including computer operation and computer graphics, small business management and “soft skills” designed to help ex-offenders work as independent consultants.

“PROFITT provides a blueprint for use by any correctional facility interested in implementing a comprehensive, competency-based Braille training program geared toward preparing offenders for long-term sustainable income upon release,” said Patrick Fraser, the program’s coordinator. “The goal is not only to reduce the rate of recidivism, but also to help meet the need for Braille materials.”

The PROFITT pilot program at the Mountain View Braille Facility in Gatesville, Tex., will conclude in mid-July. Input from the pilot will be incorporated into the curriculum, which must still be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Braille is a good topic for prison training programs because it requires extensive instruction and practice, noted Tamara Rorie, a technology licensing associate at AMAC. The PROFITT program includes 750 hours of hands-on classroom training over a period of about 30 weeks.

“It’s a matter of not only learning the material, but also gaining experience,” she said. “It takes about a year for people to become certified in literary Braille, which is the base level. Once they get that, they can continue working on advanced certifications.”

Because the code is difficult to learn, there is an unmet need for people trained to produce Braille materials.

“There are still not enough Braille transcribers to provide the materials that students need, especially textbooks,” Rorie said. “For every hundred books that are published, only one is converted to Braille.”

The Braille code uses a system of raised dots to represent characters, words and portions of words that can be read by blind and visually impaired persons. Braille has been compared to stenographer’s shorthand, and includes several levels of higher certification for mathematics, tactile graphics, textbook formatting and even music.

“Braille is literacy for people who are visually impaired,” said Fraser. “People can listen to a book through a recording or screen reader, but they are not really grasping the full notions of spelling and grammar that are the basis for language and communication. Tactile graphics produced in Braille allow a fuller understanding of the material, and this is especially important to students.”

Braille transcription is often done by independent contractors who receive and deliver their work via the Internet. That freedom is helpful to ex-offenders, whose employment opportunities may otherwise be limited by their criminal records.

“A lot of people in the prison Braille programs have never worked a real job,” said Rorie. “Those who would like to become independent contractors must understand the kind of discipline required to work by themselves.”

There are about three dozen prison Braille training programs operating in the United States. In addition to preparing offenders for an occupation upon release, the programs provide Braille textbooks and other materials mandated by federal law for K-12 schools and other organizations. The services also can provide trainees a sense of purpose.

“The Braille program has given them a reason for being, and it gives them a reason to get up every morning because they love doing what they are doing and they love seeing the finished product,” said Delores Billman, industry supervisor at the Mountain View Prison. “They certainly like to know that someone is using what they have done to better themselves.”

PROFITT’s pilot program at the Mountain View facility is teaching about 15 women who had no previous experience with Braille. But the five-track curriculum is designed so that people with Braille skills can separately use the computer and graphics training, as well as the small business and “soft skills” portions. At Mountain View, another 23 women are studying these components in preparation for release.

Sabrina Hodges, a Braille transcriber at the Mountain View prison, sees the program as key to her future.

“I know that I am going to get something out of this, not just for parole, but when I go home,” she said. “I have made a lot of promises to my family and to myself when I got here, and this program has helped me make that happen.”

To be eligible for PROFITT, offenders must be free of behavioral infractions for a year, have a good command of the English language and be at least six months away from release. While the Mountain View facility is a women’s prison, Braille training programs operate at both men’s prisons and juvenile facilities, Rorie noted.

PROFITT provides a win-win for both offenders and the larger society, Fraser said.

“Braille is not inexpensive to produce, and programs like this can help provide textbook materials to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired students,” he explained.  “In addition to meeting the demand for these materials, these programs are providing ex-offenders with skills that will allow them to be tax-paying citizens when they get out.”

This project was supported by Grant No. 2010-RV-BX-0005 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the SMART Office, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the United States Department of Justice.

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