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‘Lost Soul’ Finds New Purpose Through Corrections’ Braille Program

October 26, 2018

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

(Tim Kelly, DOC Communications)

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VANCOUVER, Wash. – When Angela Vargas went to prison 15 years ago for theft and murder conspiracy charges, she never thought her time behind bars would lead to the job of her dreams.

“I was a very lost soul,” Vargas recalled about her life before incarceration, “very insecure, angry and unmotivated to do anything else but live that kind of life.”

Her life changed, however, when she learned how to translate print materials into braille at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are visually impaired. The prison offers a transcription services program run through a partnership with the Washington State School for The Blind and Department of Corrections.

Any printed document can be translated and produced into braille. Inmates at the prison translate the documents into braille pages, which are sent to the School for the Blind’s Ogden Resource Center (ORC) to be proofread, assembled, and distributed to schools, government agencies, and businesses all over the state. The center produces braille versions of everything from textbooks and state voter guides to restaurant menus and technical manuals.

As a result of her training in prison, Vargas landed a braille coordinator job at the ORC shortly after her release in 2012. Vargas makes sure the materials are error-free and assembled correctly before they’re distributed to clients. The job, she says, fills her with pride.

“I know what we do gives visually impaired children the same type of education and advancement options as sighted people,” the 45-year-old said. “We provide a service for them, and that’s fulfilling for me.”

Vargas said that before her incarceration, an abusive relationship led her to get involved with drug dealers and other criminals.

“If it wasn’t for the (braille transcription) program, I’d probably be dead,” she said. “This program saved my life.”

A Partnership Dawns

The ORC – then known as the Braille Access Center – got its start in the early 1990s through the efforts of Dean Stenehjem, then the superintendent for the School for the Blind. He had the idea of creating a unified system that could produce braille materials quickly and at low cost so that the thousands of blind and visually impaired residents in Washington could have the same access to printed information as the general population.

The Office of the State Printer purchased $80,000 worth of embossers, computers, binding equipment and machinery for the venture. In 1993, the ORC opened its doors and proved to be an immediate success—producing more than a quarter of a million pages of braille for blind consumers during its first year of operation. To date, the program has produced more than 1.3 million braille pages.

The requests for braille materials kept coming, and soon ORC officials needed a way to keep up with demand.

The solution came from an unlikely place. Kelly Kerr, a Central Kitsap School District teacher for students with disabilities, approached Stenehjem and suggested training the incarcerated population at the Washington Corrections Center for Women to transcribe braille.

In 1996, a pilot project launched at the prison, becoming part of the Correctional Industries' inmate work training program in 2010.

Over the years, the program has received a National Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind and has served as a model for similar programs in other states, including California, South Carolina and Kentucky, Stenehjem said. In 2002, the Braille Access Program also received a Governor’s Award for Quality and PerformanceAdobe PDF document file from former Gov. Gary Locke.

The women’s corrections center is the only prison in the state to have a braille transcription program. Correctional Industries Braille Supervisor James Estep said the prison is meeting the demand for braille transcription services throughout the state, but program managers could expand it to other prisons if demand increases.

Transcribing Braille

The braille program in the prison has 16 transcribers and five apprentices. They master various tools and technologies while learning how to transcribe braille, such as Braille 2000, a software that converts electronic documents into braille code. They also learn to use “braillers,” devices similar to typewriters with six keys used to write braille, as well as embossing machines that print braille.

Estep said the program helps the women develop work ethic and gain current technology skills they can emphasize when searching for jobs after their release. Additionally, the experience restores their sense of self-worth.

“As a braille supervisor, I have the premium seat in the stadium of change to observe the individual transitions of our transcribers,” Estep said. “All of this is an unstoppable machine to facilitate positive changes in the individuals as they develop, and to hear the success stories after they are released is the most rewarding part of this job. It reinforces in my mind that I am in the right place to make a difference.”

While braille text can be produced using key strokes on a machine, many printed items can be labor-intensive. School textbooks, for example, are filled with diagrams and charts that must be created by hand.

To enlarge a graph in calculus textbook, workers cut and sculpted paper stocks with varied textures and used strings to represent the graph’s lines. After assembling all of the components of the graph, they placed a sheet of heat-activated paper on top and fed it though a thermoforming machine, creating a sheet with a raised indentation of the image, also known as a textile. One of the largest jobs a worker transcribed was a 500-page textbook, which in braille form spanned more than 100 volumes and contained thousands of pages.

Incarcerated women in the program can earn national braille transcription certifications from the Library of Congress for their work, which can help them find jobs after prison, said Jennifer Fenton, program manager at the ORC. Wages for braille transcribers can vary by employer and geographic region, Fenton said. Transcribers who work for schools can earn a range of $13 to $25 per hour. Transcribers who work as independent contractors can earn a range of $1 to $6 per page.

A 2016 report by the RAND Corporation found that those who received some type of correctional education during their incarceration were 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

Vocational education programs like braille transcription are an example of measures Corrections is taking to support Gov. Jay Inslee’s data-driven Results Washington Initiative on Healthy and Safe Communities.

Unlocking Opportunities

Felicia Dixon said she’s an example of how the braille program is transforming lives of incarcerated women. She’s been incarcerated since she was 18 for residential burglary and attempted murder charges and has a little more than two years left until her release date.

Learning how to transcribe braille ultimately led her to earning her Associate’s Degree while incarcerated.

“I didn’t have direction or ambition before,” Dixon, 32, said. “I grew up in poverty, and college was not talked about. I never thought about it, but this experience has opened up a whole new world.”

Dixon began learning braille transcription at the prison 11 years ago. She says the program not only gave her technical skills, but also the ability to think critically and use self-discipline – traits that built her confidence and inspired her to enroll in the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound, a program that offers classes inside the prison through Tacoma Community College.

She said transcribing college textbooks into braille helped her understand the subjects taught in the classes she took through FEPPS. She spent two years transcribing a math book, hand-sculpting hundreds of graphics and symbols for a community college student.

“When I started taking classes, I knew a lot of things because I knew what the symbols meant,” Dixon said.

She is the first person in her family to earn a degree and plans to eventually transfer to the University of Washington to get a bachelor’s degree in either sociology or education. She has dreams of becoming a teacher.

“I was able to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life,” Dixon said.

As for Vargas, she’s enjoying her new passion and second chance at freedom. She recently led a workshop on creating braille textiles at Portland State University. She plays on a minor league softball team once a week. She’s rebuilding relationships with her three adult children, all of whom were under the age of 11 at the start of her incarceration.

She’s also visited several juvenile detention facilities as part of The IF Project, a program aimed at preventing and reducing incarceration and recidivism. IF asks the question: “If someone could have said or done something to help them, what would it have been?”

She hopes that by sharing her story, she can motivate others to change.

“When people see me, they see that there’s a chance,” Vargas said. “If you work hard and really want something, you can get it. Life isn’t over because you went to prison.”