Prisoners Help Sight-Impaired by Translating Books Into Braille

ANAMOSA, Iowa (ANS) -- It can take a year or longer to convert a book into braille for the blind, a task that has daunted many a would-be translator. Now, the sight-impaired are getting help from people with time on their hands -- prisoners.

Long-term inmates at Anamosa State Penitentiary are repaying their debt to society by translating literary, technical and other works into braille, the system of printing and writing invented by 19th century blind French educator Louis Braille.

"There is a nationwide shortage of skilled people in this area," said Rhonda Sturtz, braille instructor at the state prison in Anamosa. "Much of this kind of translation used to be done by volunteers, but their numbers have dropped."

The shortage of certified braille translators is attributed in part to the time and patience required, particularly in translating to the Nemeth Code -- the braille form of scientific language, such as math. "There are only 20 people in the United States certified with the Library of Congress in Nemeth Code," said Sturtz. Two of those are her students.

Because the work is time-intensive -- it took a year to produce 2,776 braille pages from a 680-page government reference book -- only those inmates with four years or more remaining on their sentences are eligible for the program.

After training that can take anywhere from three months to a year to complete, the inmates put in 40-hour weeks and get paid 31 to 55 cents an hour. They use specially designed machines to create the braille text, which consists of six raised points used in 63 possible combinations. Revenue generated by the prisoners' translation is put back into the program.

Of the 40 people who have gone through Sturtz's course since 1991, 11 are currently translating. Eight are certified in literary braille translation, two in Nemeth Code, and one in literary proof reading, according to Sturtz, who works for a prison contractor, Senior State Industries.

Despite the difficulties of the work, there is a long waiting list at the all-male, 1,400-population medium/maximum security institution. "This is a higher level skill program and it isn't manual labor," said Sturtz, explaining part of the program's appeal. "This work also teaches good work habits and it gives workers a sense of responsibility."

Posted September 23, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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