‘Lost soul’ Finds New Purpose Through WCCW Braille Program
March 22, 2016
VANCOUVER – When Angela Vargas went to prison 13 years ago for theft and murder conspiracy charges, she never thought her time behind bars would lead to the job of her dreams.
“I was a very lost soul,” Vargas recalled about her life before incarceration, “very insecure, angry and unmotivated to do anything else but live that kind of life.”
Her life changed, however, when she learned how to translate print materials into Braille at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, (WCCW) in Gig Harbor. The prison offered a transcription services program run through a partnership with the Washington State School for The Blind and Department of Corrections, (DOC). The program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Any printed document can be translated and produced into Braille. Offenders at the prison translate the documents into Braille pages, which are sent to the Washington State School for the Blind’s Ogden Resource Center, (ORC) to be proofread, assembled and distributed to clients all over the state. The center produces Braille versions of everything from text books and state voter guides to restaurant menus and technical manuals.
As a result of her training in prison, Vargas landed a job at the ORC shortly after her release from prison. She’s worked as a Braille coordinator there since 2012. The center distributes its Braille materials to schools, government agencies and various businesses all over the state.
It’s Vargas’ job to make sure the materials are error free and assembled correctly before they’re distributed to clients. The job, she says, fills her with pride. “I know what we do gives visually impaired children the same type of education and advancement options sighted people do,” the 42 year-old said. “We provide a service for them and that’s fulfilling for me.”
Vargas noted that before her incarceration, an abusive relationship led her to get involved with drug dealers and other criminals. “If it wasn’t for the (Braille transcription) program, I’d probably be dead,” she said. “This program saved my life.”
A Partnership Dawns
The concept for the ORC (then known as the Braille Access Center) began in the early 1990s through the efforts of Dr. Dean Stenehjem, superintendent for the state School for the Blind. He had the idea of creating a unified system that could produce Braille materials quickly and at low cost so that the thousands of blind and visually impaired residents in Washington could have the same access to printed information as the general population.
Stenehjem formed a taskforce under the leadership of former Governor Mike Lowry, which included the Office of the State Printer, Department of Enterprise Services, (DES) (previously called Department of Information Services), School for the Blind staff, the Office of Financial Management, (OFM) and various advocacy groups to make the concept a reality.
The Office of the State Printer purchased $80,000 worth of embossers, computers, binding equipment and machinery for the venture. In 1993, the ORC opened its doors and proved to be an immediate success—producing more than a quarter of a million pages of Braille for blind consumers during its first year of operation.
The requests for Braille materials kept coming, and soon ORC officials needed a way to keep up with demand.
The solution came from an unlikely place. Kelly Kerr, a Central Kitsap School District teacher for students with disabilities, approached Stenehjem and suggested training offenders at WCCW to transcribe Braille.
In 1996, the Braille transcription program launched as a pilot project at the prison. In 2010, the School for the Blind and DOC entered into an interagency agreement to make the program part of the Correctional Industries offender work training program.
“It allowed us to set the stage to maintain quality,” Stenehjem said
Over the years, the program has received a National Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind and has served as a model for similar programs across the country including in California, South Carolina, and Kentucky, Stenehjem said. In 2002, the Braille Access Program also received a Governor’s Award for Quality and Performance from former Governor Gary Locke.
Fifteen offenders at WCCW are currently in the Braille transcription services program. Offenders master various tools and technologies while learning how to transcribe Braille, such as Braille 2000, a software that converts electronic documents into Braille code. They also learn to use “Braillers,” devices similar to typewriters with six keys used to write Braille, as well as embossing machines that print Braille.
Roy Pidcock, a Correctional Industries general manager at WCCW, said the Braille program helps the offenders develop work ethic and gain current technology skills they can emphasize when searching for jobs after their release dates. Additionally, the experience restores their sense of self-worth.
“These women get a sense of accomplishment and pride,” Pidcock said. “They get to come to work to do something positive to better themselves and enrich the lives of others. They’re learning to be better as they’re educating themselves to give back to society and we’re setting them up to be successful once they leave.”
While Braille text can be produced using key stokes on a machine, many printed items can be labor-intense. School textbooks, for example, are filled with diagrams and charts that must be created by hand.
For instance, a graph in calculus textbook must be enlarged. Offenders cut and sculpt shapes. Shaded areas are represented by paper stocks with varied textures. Lines are represented by strings. When all components of the graph are created, a sheet of heat-activated paper is placed on top and it’s fed though a thermoforming machine which creates a sheet with a raised indentation of the image, also known as a textile. One of the largest jobs an offender transcribed was a 500-page textbook that ended up spanning over a hundred volumes containing thousands of pages.
Offenders can earn national Braille transcription certifications from the Library of Congress for their work, which can help them find jobs after they release from prison, according to Jennifer Fenton, program manager at the ORC. Wages for Braille transcribers can vary by employer and geographic region, Fenton said. Transcribers who work for schools can earn a range of $13 to $25 per hour. Transcribers who work as independent contractors can earn a range of $1 to $6 per page.
Felicia Dixon says she’s an example of how the Braille program is transforming lives of incarcerated women. She’s been incarcerated since she was 18 and has just under five years left on her sentence for residential burglary and attempted murder charges.
Dixon began learning Braille transcription at WCCW nine years ago. She says the program not only gave her technical skills, but the ability to think critically and use self-discipline-- traits that built her confidence and inspired her to enroll in the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound, (FEPPS) a program that offers classes inside the prison in which offenders can earn college credit from Tacoma Community College. Dixon is just five courses away from earning her Associate’s degree.
“I didn’t have direction or ambition before,” Dixon, 30, said. “I grew up in poverty and college was not talked about. I never thought about it, but this experience has opened up a whole new world. I was able figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.”
In fact, Dixon will be the first person in her family to earn a degree. She plans on attending the University of Washington to get a Bachelor’s in either sociology or education and wants to become a teacher.
She says transcribing college textbooks into Braille helped her understand the subjects taught in the classes she took through FEPPS. She spent two years transcribing a math book, hand-sculpting hundreds of graphics and symbols for a community college student.
“When I started taking classes, I knew a lot of things because I knew what the symbols meant,” Dixon said.
As for Vargas, she’s enjoying her new passion and second chance at freedom. She’s getting ready to lead a workshop on creating Braille textiles at Portland State University.
She plays on a minor league softball team once a week. She’s been reunited and built relationships with her four adult children, all whom were all under the age of 11 at the start of her incarceration.
She’s also visited several juvenile detention facilities as part of “The If Project.” The If Project is a program started by a Seattle Police officer that is meant to inspire offenders to change their futures by asking themselves “If someone could have said or done something to help them, what would it have been?” She’s going to be featured in a documentary about the program that’s set to release this summer. She hopes that by sharing her story, she can motivate others to change.
“When people see me, they see that there’s a chance,” Vargas said. “If you work hard and really want something, it can be gotten. Life isn’t over because you got in prison.”
See the KING 5 story on the WCCW Braille Program .