Inmates find opportunity at Folsom’s Braille program

By Harry C. Goodall Jr.

Since 1989, Folsom State Prison’s Braille program has been transforming lives by transcribing books into Braille for the blind through the California Prison Industry Authority.

It started when the Folsom Lions Club was creating audio books on tape. Select prisoners would read the books for blind people like Amelia Diaz. Her favorite reader was an inmate named William. After listening to William read, she would write back to him in Braille, thanking him for the work he did.

Not able to read her notes, he asked if the prison would teach him how to read Braille. The warden at Folsom approved and the Braille program began, according to a Jan. 17 story in the Folsom Telegraph.

Inmates first learn literary Braille and must pass a certification process. Later they learn the notations for mathematics or science or music, which often use similar dot configurations for completely different meanings. Each separate Braille course requires lengthy study and certification 

The United English and Braille Certification process has only 600 people certified. Inmate Layale Shellman has received six certifications in six years.

“I once, during a drug-induced state, not making excuses, but I stole from a blind woman,” said Shellman. “In 1980, I became a Christian, and this is one of the ways you have to make amends,” he said, tearing up.

“Nemeth (for science notation) takes about one to one-and-a-half years to complete and there are only 400 to 500 people left doing it,” said Shelton. “There are about 60 people in the world who have ever done music, and currently there are about 30 who are active. There are about 12 people in the world who have all the certifications and we have three of them here.

“Some of us came up because it’s a career; some of us came up here because it is away from the madness. This place is quiet,” noted Shellman. “I have been in prison for 38 years. I was a biker; a bad dude. I killed a man in Florida and I am doing time here.”

Inmate Samuel Martinez came to prison at 18 years old, and is a former gang member.

His efforts at self-rehabilitation include a college degree, several trades and two certifications in Braille.

“I used to have life without parole, but my sentence was reduced and now I’m going home in a month,” he said in a recent interview. “A lot of my accomplishments and positive things I’ve done in here have shown that I am no longer a threat to society and I can give back.

“I am convinced that even in prison someone can be a success story and continue that on the streets. It’s not just a dead end in here in prison. I have really learned from the blind project and it has been the thing that has really inspired me the most.”

Martinez didn’t have any prior job experience prior to incarceration.

“In here we have to meet deadlines, we have cubicles, we have coworkers and the work is meaningful. I really get a sense of responsibility here and I really do feel like I am working at a real job,” he commented. 

Martinez’s goal upon release is to work with the Department of Education and community colleges.

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