GATESVILLE (February 26, 2014) According to the Texas Education Agency, 4,108 students being educated in public schools today across the state are blind and they rely heavily on braille materials, some of which are created by inmates at the Mountain View Prison Unit for women in Gatesville.
With a maximum capacity of 645, Mountain View is home to Texas women’s death row, where eight women are now held.
But nearby, an industry building provides some of the most hardened criminals at Mountain View a chance at salvation.
The building is home to the prison’s braille facility, a place where nearly 100 inmates work each day to transcribe textbooks into braille for blind students across Texas.
The unit has been transcribing and printing braille since 1999.
It’s a highly sought after position at Mountain View, one that’s not suited for those lacking desire according to one of the program’s coordinators Kevin VonRosenberg.
“This entire unit is a very tight-knit family, and it takes a passion to transcribe braille. It is not an easy task,” VonRosenberg said.
VonRosenberg says it normally takes an inmate two years to become a certified braille transcriptionist.
The inmates begin their training on a Perkins Brailler, a typewriter that manually imprints raised dots onto sheets of paper.
Once inmates become certified, they use computer software to transcribe textbooks from courses ranging from elementary school to the college level.
Inmate Angela Garrett, 48, started serving a life sentence in 1986 at Mountain View.
She didn’t know any languages other than English when she started her sentence, but now she transcribes both Spanish and French.
“You don’t have to be fluent in the language, but you have to become familiar with it. You have to know which braille sequence stands for each accented letters. Bottom line, you have to know what you're doing," Garrett said.
For inmate Kathleen Latimer, 49, serving a life sentence for murder, learning to transcribe braille has been a difficult yet rewarding journey.
"You have to put the work in and of course when I do that I feel like I'm putting back into society what I took," Latimer said.
Another facet to the braille operations at Mountain View is the tactile graphics department where inmates use a laser printer to create maps and graphs for the visually impaired.
Different textures and patterns found throughout the prison are placed onto the graphics printed in this creative process, to help the student tell the difference between areas on the map or graph.
When inmates are finished transcribing a certain textbook into braille, it’s proof-read and sent off electronically to various teaching organizations in Texas.
Sometimes a third party prints the braille and constructs it into a textbook, while other times its done right at Mountain View.
In 2013, the Mountain View braille facility transcribed an estimated 60,000 pages of text that blind students are utilizing right now in Texas.
"So many times these offenders spend all of their life taking from society, this is an opportunity for them to give back to somebody who needs it," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Jason Clark said.
For inmate Christine Dodson, 51, who’s serving a life sentence for injury to a child, giving back was a choice she had to make on her own.
“Everybody who walks through these gates is going to have to make a choice, and some make good ones and some make bad ones," Dodson said.
"We're all just trying to rebuild our lives, and I feel like that's what we're called to do here by helping others."
Often, the braille facility gives inmates the tools to land on their feet when they leave prison.
In the public sector, a job transcribing braille can mean a yearly salary as much as $100,000 according to VonRosenburg.
Twenty-five inmates have left the Mountain View Braille Unit with such jobs waiting for them on the outside, which is something Alexa Garza, 34, who’s serving a 20 year sentence for murder, thinks about constantly.
"There's no fence on the sky, I always look up, I never look down, this prison is not going to define me," Garza said.
"Maybe one day they’ll say this place didn't define me and I can be somebody out there."
A plaque that hangs near the facility’s exit reads, “Changing Lives One Cell at a Time.”
It’s a reference to the raised dots printed and typed there every day which are technically called “cells.”
The phrase’s meaning is obviously geared towards the lives the inmates impact every day by transcribing braille, yet Garza feels the phrase has a dual meaning.
"I often wonder if it's a braille cell or a prison cell. I actually think it's both because this is changing my life and I'm helping change someone else's," Garza said.
"I'm blessing them and they're blessing me."