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Virginia Offender Gives Back: Ex-Offender Works to Help Blind Students by Transcribing K-12 Textbooks


While she was serving time in prison, a training program opened up a new world for Alexandria’s Deborah Adams. Today she’s helping open the world for others after learning to transcribe Braille while behind bars. While doing time for embezzlement at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW), Ms. Adams learned to transcribe Braille and earned a coveted U.S. Library of Congress certification in literary Braille. Six days after her release from prison in October, Ms. Adams became a contracted transcriptionist for the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI). Ms. Adams’ new life had its beginnings about six years ago when she started learning to transcribe Braille in Virginia Correctional Enterprises’ Optical Braille Transcription program, developed collaboratively by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) and DBVI. “

Prior to being sentenced in 2005, I was slapped on the wrist several times. With this program I can come straight out and have a whole new career in business, and I never have to look back to what I was doing prior to being incarcerated,” Ms. Adams said. “I am a perfect example of how the system can allow you to change and become a better person.” Several offenders have participated in the FCCW transcription program; Ms. Adams is the first to be released and employed in the craft. A network of people helped Ms. Adams make her reentry into society. Her parole officer worked with her housing provider so that Ms. Adams could transcribe at a transition home in her first days of freedom and abide by VADOC rules for release. “This is a reentry success story on many levels. Good things happen when all parts of the system work together,” said FCCW Warden Tammy Brown. “Dedicated, hard-working people at Fluvanna Correctional Center, Virginia Correctional Enterprises, the Department of Blind and Vision Impaired and the Alexandria Probation and Parole Office came together on this.” Ms. Adams’ work for DBVI involves transcribing textbooks for blind children in traditional K-12 school settings. DBVI serves about 2,000 blind and vision impaired K-12 students. Approximately 100 are Braille readers. “These students have all different needs and they require about ten books each. So we produce quite a few books,” explained Barbara McCarthy of DBVI. Transcription is no easy task. The newest textbooks are very visual with prominent pictures, charts, special sections and other features that must be specially formatted for blind students.

Good transcription involves a certain amount of translation, but good formatting is especially important so that the reader understands, for instance, charts, pictures, and where a page begins and ends. “You have to learn transcription like you are learning a second language,” Ms. McCarthy said. Transcription requires skill and patience. The work can be tedious. For these reasons there are a limited number of transcribers and DBVI routinely hires transcribers outside Virginia. “Anytime we can help someone start a new life on a good footing we have succeeded,” said Virginia Correctional Enterprises’ Dave Pastorius, who helped coordinate the transcription efforts at FCCW. “This would not have been possible if not for the good work and collaboration of VADOC, DBVI and our probation and parole office. The fact that Ms. Adams is meeting a need and ultimately will be helping Braille readers makes this a win-win situation.”


Virginia Corrections Offers Offenders a Fresh Start with Digital Finishing


Although some prisoners today still make only license plates, many are doing more useful things with their time while “doing time.” At Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE), offenders manufacture products from furniture and apparel to bed linens and binders. And for some, the daily regimen includes learning some of the most advanced digital prepress, printing and finishing technology currently available. Operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections, VCE was established by the Virginia General Assembly more than 75 years ago as a work program to produce goods and services for tax-supported agencies of the Commonwealth and authorized non-profit organizations. A self-sufficient entity, VCE is supported by revenue retained from the sale of its products and services, rather than by tax dollars from the state’s General Fund.

More importantly, the VCE vocational programs and work opportunities help instill a work ethic and teach skills that enable offenders incarcerated within the Department of Corrections to become productive members of society upon their release, and reduce the rate of recidivism, which in the U.S. averages 60%. The expansion to printing in 1998 was the idea of VCE Director Don Guillory, who believed that offenders needed to learn how to make more than hard goods like clothing and furniture. Multiple printing facilities offer state-of-the-art prepress departments and an on-line C.P. Bourg booklet making system to match its output, says Stephen Palmese, VCE Group Manager, Print Services. Palmese joined VCE in 1993 as supervisor of the bindery division, following a 10-year career on the New York commercial printing scene and a five-year stint at commercial shops in Virginia. At the time,VCE’s only printing facility was the offset shop in Powhatan. In 1999, Palmese was promoted to manager of the Powhatan facility. He was promoted again in 2005 to his current position as Group Manager responsible for all three facilities reporting to Don Guillory. Making a break “Through the 1990s, our customers constantly wanted their jobs faster and we were unable to meet that demand with offset, which is time-consuming to start with,” says Palmese. In 1995, Palmese convinced VCE management to purchase a Xerox DocuTech® 135.

“We had that system for a while,” says Palmese, pointing to prison procedures that foil any advantage of turnaround time. “Nothing moves fast inside a prison,” he explains. “If you want something quickly, you have to plan way ahead, or find an alternative. For example, when paper stock needs to be ordered, it can take two days to schedule and go through security screening, plus an additional two days for the paper to acclimate to the shop’s climate-controlled environment.” By 2001, Print Services’ offset turnaround times of two to three weeks were colliding head-on with customer demands for finished jobs in 24 to 72 hours. In response, Palmese, who also has an associate degree in business management, suggested opening digital printing centers outside the prison walls. The novel idea, which hadn’t been attempted before, has proved quite successful.

Booklets of one or thousands can be produced with zero waste and at rates up to 4,200 sets per hour. “I’ve been familiar with C.P. Bourg forever,” Palmese says of his choice, also citing Bourg’s reputation for having the best finishing products to work online with Xerox presses. A prepress department with state-of-the-art machines and the latest publishing software including Adobe Creative Suite rounds out VCE's digital tour de force. Printed output runs the gamut from letterhead, business cards and pamphlets to brochures and posters, and from B&W to double-run 4-color process. Seven full-time civilian staff supervise the Powhatan workforce of 45 male offenders, many of whom serve long sentences and can stay on the job for 15 to 17 years, Palmese notes. In contrast, each of the digital facilities is operated by female offenders closely supervised by knowledgeable staff and Corrections officers and who are bused in and out each day to and from nearby minimum-security facilities. Despite a total digital volume of more than 30 million pages per year, the offset operation generates two-thirds of the VCE Print Services group revenue, suggesting significant volume. Although digital efficiency comes at a higher price to customers, the more advanced digital operation makes it easier for offenders to learn binding and finishing skills more quickly and to gain the proficiency needed to retrieve and load jobs, operate the presses, and troubleshoot problems without intervention, says Palmese citing a study recently conducted by the Print Services Group.

According to the study, offenders typically learn basic skills on the digital presses in two to four weeks or seven to 13 times faster than on comparable offset equipment. They can become proficient using the digital monochrome presses in 12 weeks, and on the color presses in about one year or four times faster than the time needed to learn the corresponding offset process. The learning curve for the smaller bindery equipment is comparable. Offenders need only four weeks on average to learn the basics, and 12 weeks to become proficient. This compares with eight weeks learning the ropes and 52 weeks, or a full year to become proficient on the larger cutters folders and off-line binders, reports Palmese.

“Our time estimates include learning a work ethic and developing the good habits that come with it like getting up on time, having a good attitude and taking pride in the job. “Keep in mind that many of the female offenders employed at the digital facility have never operated equipment before let alone sophisticated printing and finishing equipment and many have never held a job,” he cautions. The decision to send a job to Powhatan or one of the digital facilities depends on the quantity the customer needs, their budget and how fast they want the finished product, says Palmese. “We offer 24-hour turnaround at the digital centers, compared to two to three week turnaround at Powhatan.

If somebody needs a 4-color job quickly, there’s just no way to produce it offset,” he says.“Then again, if a customer wants 15,000 4-color brochures, there’s no way we can do it economically on the digital presses,” he explains. Palmese credits the Digital Works program with having equipped hundreds of offenders with the skills needed to land jobs outside of prison, contributing to Virginia’s 27.3% recidivism rate one of the lowest rates in the U.S. “That may not sound like a lot,” says Palmese, “but the opportunity to have their own place, their own car and their own bank account is a life-changing situation for the former offenders who apply the skills they’ve learned here to become productive members of society.”