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Wis. prison inmates transcribe books, music for the blind

Earning 35 cents an hour and working seven hours daily Monday through Friday, inmates perform the painstaking work to help unlock textbooks for blind and seeing-impaired students

By Meg Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Algebra is not the easiest subject for the average person to understand, but it’s even more difficult for a blind student.

Without seeing numbers, equations and mathematical formulas, blind students need a way to understand algebra and work through math problems.

That’s where a group of men serving prison sentences lend a hand. In a small room at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, 18 inmates work to help blind math students learn geometry and calculus, blind musicians memorize songs and blind travelers navigate with maps.

Earning 35 cents an hour and working seven hours daily Monday through Friday, inmates perform the painstaking work to help unlock textbooks for blind and seeing-impaired students.

Dot by dot, letter by letter, number by number, John is transforming a first year Algebra textbook into a different language. “Every book you do is different. It’s a challenge. It keeps the mind sharp,” said John, as he sat before a computer screen with black dots arranged in Braille.

Only inmates’ first names were allowed to be used in this story.

Oshkosh Correctional Institution began its Braille transcription program in 1997 after an inmate who had been a court reporter suggested it. Since then, 1,730 projects encompassing 10 million Braille pages have been completed, said Braille instructor Kurt Pamperin. Last year, 312 books with 750,000 pages were transcribed into Braille at the 300-bed medium security prison.

Inmates, some of whom have blind family members, apply to work as transcribers. It takes nine to 12 months to earn Literary Braille Certification through the Library of Congress. Students can earn 12 credits from Fox Valley Technical College. A total of 47 inmates have graduated from the program, including a few who launched a community-based Braille transcription service after their release.

“There’s a strong feeling of pride: I translated this book and somebody will read it,” said Clinton Bryant, education director at Oshkosh Correctional Institution. “The guys speak about it with passion.”

Most of the work is textbooks requested by schools and among the most challenging are math textbooks, music books and maps. An electronic Braille translation program is used, which is generally 99% accurate, although every word must be read to check for errors. Proofreaders outside the prison provide feedback and suggest corrections to the inmates’ work.

Oshkosh Correctional Institution is one of 33 prisons in 26 states with Braille transcription programs. Prisons help fill a niche that computer programs can’t. That’s because turning textbooks, maps and music into Braille requires humans and with little profit to be made, organizations that perform this type of work tend to be nonprofits and prisons, said Chris Danielsen, National Federation of the Blind public relations director.

“Music, as far as I know, there aren’t that many ways to really just straight translate a musical score into Braille without a lot of human intervention,” said Danielsen, who is blind and reads Braille.

While it is becoming easier to transcribe words into Braille, fewer blind students are being taught it because it’s expensive for school districts to hire Braille teachers and easier to put an iPad into a blind student’s hands. But listening to a book is not the same as reading, and blind students who can’t read Braille are illiterate because they don’t learn how to spell or construct sentences.

“The argument some make is that in light of technology Braille is not needed as much,” said Danielsen. “That’s like saying because of iPads we don’t need to learn to read any more. The reality is that although you have devices that can talk, listening is not reading.”

One Oshkosh inmate named Don is among only a handful of Braille transcribers who handle music scores and books. On a recent day, Don was transcribing “Spotlight on Music” for fourth-grade students. A musician who sang in choirs, Don earned the Literary Braille Certification and continued his studies to learn music transcription, a process that took two years.

He has transcribed music for students at University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Oshkosh. One page of a full orchestral score can take Don a day or more to transcribe.

“It’s kind of neat. I can help somebody learn this music and help a blind person have this connection,” he said.