Women prisoners earn braille certifications, look to future

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Hope Zentz, 43, never could keep a job.

Time and time again, she’d find good work, hang on to it for a while, then walk away, pushed toward the door by alcoholism and drug addiction.

“I was never fired,” Zentz said. “I always quit because of the shame and the guilt, or just missing work and I just couldn’t face people.”

It was only in arriving in Michigan’s prison system that she gave any thought to living a different way.

And now, more than 11 years in to the system, and just shy of seven years before she’s eligible for parole, Zentz has learned to stick things out. That newfound persistence paid off earlier this month when she received her literary braille certification from the Library of Congress.

At the time she heard of the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund, and that it was coming to her facility, Zentz said she was in a "mandatory" recovery group. 

Inmate Hope Zentz proofreads her manuscript, before sending it to the Library of Congress. She would get a score of 91 on it.

“My focus, since 2009 when I got sober in prison, was to try to pay it forward and make up for some of the wrongs that I’ve done,” Zentz said.

Her wrongs, in her words, include “becoming a felon, going to prison, hurting my family and friends, and even society...I wanted to change the dynamic in my family. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do something that was selfless. 

“I wanted something that was the complete opposite” of life as she came to know it before prison, Zentz said. And in transcribing braille, she found it.

Zentz is one of four inmates at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the state’s only prison for women, to receive their certifications, said Cindy Olmstead, CEO of the braille program. 

Another 10 have submitted their 35-page-minimum manuscripts and are waiting for their scores. 

Success requires scores of 80 or above. Six other women are at various stages of their training. The other inmates to get their certifications are Colleen Sturdevant, 30, April Foster, 38, and Lillian Roberts, 46.

April Foster, 38, left, and other inmates work on their manuscripts, transcribing novels into Braille. "I want to do something that my family can be proud of," Foster said. She got a score of 88 on her manuscript, she told The News.

The women’s success was celebrated last week by a photo with Olmstead on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ Twitter page.

If and when she gets out of prison — the outer bound of her sentence is April 2054 — Zentz doesn’t plan to get a job, she plans to continue her career transcribing braille. She even has the name picked out.

And so the path is laid out for Zentz, if she’s able to continue walking it. When interviewed last week by The News, Zentz knew her parole eligibility down to the day. 

Colleen Sturdevant, 30, went to prison young in life, at the age of 19, without any educational or career accomplishments to speak of.

“I don’t have that extensive of a job or career background,” said Sturdevant, who was a college freshman at the time she was incarcerated. “I wanted the chance to make something of myself. Something I could say I earned on my own.”

Sturdevant was "more of a follower” then.

Her boyfriend was who she followed, right to prison. He’s incarcerated too, serving the same sentence, but they’re out of contact with one another. Sturdevant said that’s by her choice.

“On a Memorial Day weekend (in 2009), we made a horrible choice that almost took an innocent person’s life,” Sturdevant said of her case, for which she’ll have served almost 19 years before parole eligibility. The outer bound of her sentence is June 2039. 

“And here I sit for that lapse of judgment.”

Oftentimes certified transcribers are asked to take on contract work transcribing textbooks needed by schoolchildren in Michigan and elsewhere. 

Prisoners in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana produce anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the textbooks needed by the Michigan Department of Education. That number could go up as more women become certified, and the Huron Valley program reaches full production. Ultimately, Olmstead said, her goal is to have 50 participants in the men's program and 50 in the women's program. The men's program is down to 32 members at the moment.

For the motivated braillist, this can be lucrative business, with the Michigan Department of Education paying $3.75 per transcribed page — braille transcripts often have at least three times the pages of a print work — and another $3 per graphic. People involved in the procuring of braille have described the demand for it as “endless.”

"These books can be expensive, and the school has to provide it for them, so I'm glad I'm able to eventually learn how to provide these textbooks, so kids have the opportunity to learn," Sturdevant said.

When Zentz and Sturdevant are eventually paroled, the braille fund’s graduate program will help them start their own businesses transcribing braille.

Recently, Sturdevant learned that her manuscript was not only good enough to qualify, but that she was only deducted one point, which owed to a flubbed contradiction. Her score, 99, was the highest of the three inmates interviewed by The News, though she said she hoped the other 16 women working for their certifications fare better. 

“It was something very small, it was nothing I was even worrying about,” Sturdevant said of the mistake, adding that she wouldn’t make that error again if submitting a new manuscript today. “That’s one thing I have not done — I have not made the same mistake twice.”

The graduate program has helped about 16 former inmates set up shop after leaving the prison system, Olmstead said.

Cindy Olmstead, CEO of the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund, said the program helps participants set up shop after leaving the prison system.

It offers not only equipment, but also work opportunities and mentorship on issues ranging from how to choose a CPA to how to set up an LLC. 

“We don’t want people to be discharged and become discouraged and give up hope,” Olmstead said of the graduate program. “We want them to keep using the skill they’ve learned.”