Commentary: Braille Transcription by Prisoners

For many years, prisons and correctional facilities have given inmates a job these individuals probably never considered doing when they were free. After all, not many people know what Braille is, let alone how to read or write this alphabet. Several inmates at Oshkosh Correctional Institution in Wisconsin spend many hours a day transcribing textbooks into Braille for blind students, and they evidently take pride on helping others.

Technology has made it easier to transcribe print materials into Braille. One can easily type or scan printed textbooks, and special software translates it into Braille. The problem comes when transcribing materials like music, math or foreign languages. This is the part where humans come into play. While computers might do most of the job, it is up to the transcriber – who will hopefully have good knowledge about Braille – to catch and correct any translation errors.

Ironically, very few people and organizations have the skills and resources to perform this painstakingly slow task. After all, they must be willing to proofread every single Braille dot found in, for example, a 400 page geometry textbook. A lot of the inmates involved in this project take great pride in the work they do. By learning to transcribe Braille, these inmates will be productive while serving their sentence and learn a skill that might lead to employment when they are released.

But will someone actually read the books they spend so much time and effort transcribing? According to the National Federation of the Blind, only about 10 percent of blind children in the United States read and write Braille. Numerous budget cuts have caused a shortage of Braille teachers, and it is often easier to give a blind child an iPad or audio textbook than to spend the time and resources teaching them Braille. However, I strongly believe that blind children will have poor grammar and punctuation skills as adults if they learn to “read” by simply listening to their textbooks and homework assignments. I hope that more prisons will incorporate Braille transcription programs in their institutions. Better yet, I hope that when school districts see that there are resources to produce and obtain Braille textbooks, Braille instruction for children will be encouraged and provided.

The Braille transcription program at Oshkosh Correctional Institution should be an example for other prisons that want to help their inmates succeed. This is a perfect scenario of a win-win situation for all. It helps two groups to become productive members of society. We need to create more programs that have this type of societal impact.

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