'Something (to) be proud of': Women join Michigan prison Braille transcribers

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

For her role in her daughter's death in 2012, April Foster is spending the rest of her life in prison.

The 38-year-old's hope is that her work transcribing Braille will make those days count — and offer a measure of redemption. 

"I want to do something that my family can be proud of," Foster said. "When you have a life sentence, it makes you lose a lot of hope."

April Foster, 38, right, and other inmates work on their manuscripts, transcribing novels into braille to become certified by the Library of Congress, at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Mich. on May 28, 2019.  Twenty inmates have been learning to transcribe braille and seven have passed their first certification.

Foster is among about two dozen inmates at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility who are learning to transcribe Braille and foster literacy in the blind community. It's the first time that female prisoners in Michigan have joined the program, which has been active in state prisons since the 1960s.

The inclusion of the state’s only women’s prison into the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund program comes as volunteer groups who used to produce Braille — usually stay-at-home mothers of blind children — retire from the practice and are not often replaced by younger volunteers.

Over the last several months, about two dozen inmates at Huron Valley have spent their days and nights learning the rudiments of Braille. Their time is split between classroom instruction and practicing on their own time in their cells.

Once certified, the women will join 35 counterparts at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson in producing millions of pages of Braille per year, including school textbooks, maps, menus and tactile graphics.

Braille text is printed on the braille embossing machine.

“It’s like learning an entirely new language,” said Tashiena Combs, 43, who has spent the last 20 years in prison after a murder conviction in Oakland County.

After spending eight years mentoring in a substance abuse treatment program and six working in the law library, Combs was intrigued by the opportunity to learn Braille. It hasn’t been easy.

This is a detail of thermal-copied braille mathematics forms.

Working on a six-key Braille machine, she’s learned that even minor mistakes can be costly.

“You can’t correct mistakes on the Brailler we have now,” Combs said. “If you make one mistake on the page, you have to start all the way over. It has to be as close to perfect as possible.” 

At the Cotton facility, the Braille program works out of a self-contained building on the prison grounds. At Huron Valley come November, the Braille program will be part of the state’s third Vocational Village site, alongside programs offering certifications in building trades and carpentry, commercial truck driving, 3D printing and robotics, and cosmetology, among others.

"Many of the prisoners would tell you it's a way to not only obtain the skill but also to give back," said Shawn Brewer, warden at Huron Valley. Brewer sits on the board of the nonprofit and shepherded the expansion effort.

The idea had been broached years earlier but was denied. When Brewer became warden of Huron Valley in 2017, he decided the time was right.

Prison headcounts have dropped considerably in Michigan over the years, with the 38,415 inmates as of mid-May down more than 13,000 from the high water mark of 51,554 in March 2007. Department of Corrections officials attribute that to programs designed to teach the skills and mindsets that leave former inmates ready to rejoin the real world — and the job market — once their debts to society are paid. 

Cindy Olmstead, CEO of The Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund, stands in the master library of tactile graphics, with more than 4,000 titles, at the G. Robert Facility in Jackson.

20th-century roots

Officially, the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund started work in 1962. But a Detroit News story on the program from May 1965 placed its genesis years earlier.

“The program was started in 1959 by a prisoner who subsequently was freed, but who taught others the value of contributing before he left,” according to The News' report. The prisoner’s name was never mentioned and has been lost to history. Back then, Lions Clubs in the Jackson area would send prisoners the paper they used to transcribe.

These days, the nonprofit earns hundreds of thousands in revenues annually. Per its 2017 tax forms, the fund has just shy of $5 million in assets. Those revenues fund all program operations; the fund itself receives no taxpayer money, said Cindy Olmstead, CEO of the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund.

“Anybody can purchase our work,” Olmstead said. “We sell nationwide as well as abroad. We have customers in Canada and Mexico. In the past, we have sold to Guam.”

The fund’s catalog of books is itself 1,000 pages. Among its most important works are Braille versions of school textbooks.

The Michigan Department of Education’s Low Incidence Outreach office is a sign of the changing times for the blind in Michigan. 

Successor to the long-shuttered Michigan School for the Blind, a state-run boarding school that suffered dwindling enrollment, Low Incidence Outreach works with school districts and families to make sure blind and hearing-impaired students have the resources they need for academic success, including Braille textbooks.

“That’s (822 blind) students who don’t have a school to go to,” said Roxanne Balfour, interim director of the low incidence outreach office. “They are immersed in the general (education) population. We felt this was better, that they would benefit from being with a general population.”

But that means those students, ideally, would start each school year with the same textbooks their sighted peers use. To do that, the state starts ordering Braille transcribed books in October for the next year.

The education department has a network of some 27 Braille transcribers, including the prison Braille programs in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, which each count as one contract. All told, prisoners crank out between 20% and 30% of the state’s demand for Braille textbooks.

Once a book has been successfully transcribed, it becomes part of the department’s library, and copies are available for a much cheaper price than the original transcription. But the nature of textbooks is that new editions are released all the time.

“As long as the publisher is putting out books, and school districts are buying them for their sighted peers, we will produce them in Braille for our alternative needs students,” said Robert Beaton, a department of education staffer who works with Braille contractors and proofreads Braille. 

April Foster, 38, and other inmates work on their manuscripts, transcribing novels into braille to become certified by the Library of Congress, at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Mich. on May 28, 2019.  Twenty inmates have been learning to transcribe braille and seven have passed their first certification.

Becoming a Brailler

The National Library Service, at the Library of Congress, has been certifying Braille transcribers since 1919.

“People die, leave or don’t do it anymore, so it’d be hard to say exactly how many are certified,” said Tamara Rorie, Braille development officer for the Library of Congress. 

Since 2007, the certification program is administered by the National Federation of the Blind, and about 3,500 people have earned their Literary Braille certifications since, said Jennifer Dunnam, manager of Braille programs for the federation.

Literary Braille is the basic, beginner certification. Others, such as Nemeth (math and science), music, and foreign languages, require much more training.

The literary Braille certification consists of 19 lessons, which progress in difficulty and build on one another. The final element is a 35-page transcript. A score of 80 or above is required to obtain the literary Braille certification.

Mistakes are graded harshly. The standard, experts say, is to deliver a document that is equal to what a sighted person would have. If a word is spelled wrong on the print page, it needs to be spelled the same way on the Braille page. If a comma seems misplaced on the print page, the transcriber is not permitted to make a judgment call. Where the author placed the comma is where the comma must go. 

The women at Huron Valley, still working toward their certificates, describe the work as demanding. At the moment, they’re using old-school technology rather than computers.

The work is meaningful to inmates like Foster, of Detroit.

In March 2012, she abandoned her two daughters at an urgent care in Flint while the younger girl, 6, was sick with pneumonia. She died that night, and Foster received a life sentence for felony murder. 

Learning Braille, she said, has been a worthy challenge.

"It's very, very complicated," Foster said. "These blind people have to be geniuses."

Anyone, in prison or out, can take learn Braille, as the lessons are freely available online. 

But, Dunnam said, many who start the training learn within three or four lessons that it’s not for them. 

Mark Coleman, a 25-year veteran of the Braille program at the Cotton prison, said it takes new hires about a week to know whether they’re cut out for the work.

“If you don’t go back and close your eyes at night and see dots, and if you don’t try to read those dots in your mind, it’s not for you,” Coleman said. “You won’t get it. It won’t click.”

Coleman, 65, has been incarcerated since November 1981, when he was pulled over while driving the car of a slain man, Dr. Lee James English of Utica. 

At the time, and on the witness stand at his trial, Coleman tried to blame English's death on another man, whose existence was never proved. Decades later, Coleman admits to his actions, which will keep him imprisoned the rest of his life.

“I’m in here for a murder that I did commit,” Coleman said during a recent Detroit News visit to the Cotton facility. “I’m not proud of it, but it happened and I accept it."

Prior to joining the Braille program, Coleman worked in prison legal aid but decided he needed a change. Swinging mops was not an option. He needed a challenge.

“The whole joy of the work is who we’re serving,” Coleman said. “To not only give back to somebody who really needs it but to give them a product that’s first-class." 

Tashiena Combs, 43, and other inmates work on their manuscripts, transcribing novels into braille to become certified by the Library of Congress, at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Mich. on May 28, 2019. Here, she presses keys on the braillewriter. Twenty inmates have been learning to transcribe braille and seven have passed their first certification.

Filling a need

Jayma Hawkins, director of the American Printing House for the Blind’s National Prison Braille Network, said Michigan’s program is one of 40 in America.

All told, about 1,000 prisoners in America transcribe Braille. Some are paid, as in Michigan, where participants can earn up to $4,000 in a year. Others are considered volunteers and are unpaid. 

Decades ago, it was parents of blind children, usually stay-at-home mothers, who learned to transcribe Braille and did it for free to meet the needs of their child, or children in the community. But as those groups have tailed off over the years, prisoners have picked up the slack.

“Younger people coming up now, they can’t really afford to volunteer,” Hawkins said. “Everybody has to have a job.”

Some prison programs, including the one in Michigan, connect prisoners who return to society with the materials needed to set up shop, which can be expensive. 

“We provide them with the equipment, we provide them with the work and we modify their pay scale” to make it equivalent with fair-market prices, Olmstead said.

While prisoners can earn up to $4,000 a year in Michigan transcribing Braille, private Braille transcribers can earn much more.

Those resources are offered so that a skill learned over years of practice is not lost, allowing the ex-inmate to continue earning a living. 

“Braille is important because it provides literacy,” said Library of Congress' Rorie, who is blind. “You can use technology, you can use audio, and most people who read Braille do. We use all the means by which we can gain information. But when you read Braille, it’s going to improve your ability to spell. Being employed is directly related to being able to read Braille.”

Seventy percent of blind people are unemployed, per the National Federation of the Blind. But 90% of blind people who do have jobs can read Braille. 

“The idea that Braille is on the decline, or is a dying art, it’s frustrating,” said Dunnam, of the federation. “We want to make sure people have high expectations for people who are blind.”

Julia Lyons-Davis, right, and other inmates work on their manuscripts, transcribing novels into braille to become certified by the Library of Congress, at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Mich. on May 28, 2019.  Twenty inmates have been learning to transcribe braille and seven have passed their first certification.