REENTRY SUCCESS THROUGH TRAINING AND TECHNOLOGY
By Patrick Fraser, Program Coordinator, Providing Real Opportunities for Income Through Technology (PROFITT), Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC), Georgia Institute of Technology
In these tight economic times, addressing the employment needs of offenders slated for impending release can be quite a challenge with limited resources and support systems in place. But one new training program set up at the maximum security Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, TX is working to change that reality. Providing Real Opportunities for Income through Technology (PROFITT), a Second Chance Act project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, is a grant collaboration that is establishing a model curriculum geared at positioning o ffenders for sustainable income upon release. Georgia Institute of Technology’s Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC), the National Braille Press, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) have been collaborating on the e ffort, and have created a five-track comprehensive curriculum whereby o ffenders learn skills that will greatly assist them upon release. PROFITT has been piloting the curriculum at TDCJ’s Mountain View Unit, where Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) maintains a braille production center. While the PROFITT project focuses on training in a specific vocation … braille transcription … the curriculum has been designed as five independent tracks to provide maximum flexibility in delivery. Each track may be used in a variety of settings throughout Correctional Industries in support of multiple vocations. The curriculum developers envision that the program can be replicated and customized in many settings, having a positive impact on prisoner reentry success for years to come.
Braille is a system of raised dots to represent characters, words and portions of words that can be read by blind and visually-impaired persons. Braille has been compared to stenographer’s shorthand, and includes several levels of higher certification for mathematics, tactile graphics, textbook formatting and even music. Braille is literacy for people who are visually impaired. People can listen to a book through a recording or screen reader, but they are not really grasping the full notions of spelling and grammar that are the basis for language and communication. Tactile graphics produced in braille allow a fuller understanding of the material, and this is especially important to students.
Prison Braille Programs: An Overview
There are currently over 35 prison braille programs across the country, many of which are managed by state Correctional Industries. In addition to preparing offenders for an occupation upon release, the programs provide braille textbooks and other materials mandated by federal law for students attending K-12 schools and other organizations at a low cost, that saves states a great deal of money. Braille production also provides trainees with a strong sense of purpose, which is a common assertion of those who have completed training. Braille transcription is difficult to learn, and there is an unmet need for people trained to produce braille materials who have advanced certifications. Braille is an excellent vocation for prison training programs because it requires extensive instruction, dedicated time and practice. Braille transcription is often done by independent contractors who receive and deliver their work via the Internet. This employment structure is helpful to ex-o ffenders, whose employment opportunities may otherwise be limited by their criminal records. Anecdotal research indicates that the recidivism rate of qualified inmate braille transcribers across the country is between zero and three percent (via the National Prison Braille Network).
The PROFITT Curriculum
The PROFITT program includes 750 hours of hands-on classroom training over a period of about 30 weeks. An expansion of earlier braille training programs, PROFITT also teaches broader professional skills, including computer operation and computer graphics, small business management and “soft skills” designed to help ex-offenders work as independent consultants. The curriculum’s five tracks include basic computer skills, soft/life skills training, literary braille transcription, tactile and advanced computer graphics, and finally small business management. With the enhanced curriculum that has been catered directly to the unique challenges of instruction within the prison environment, PROFITT strives to improve existing braille production facilities, and also encourage the development of new prison braille programs. The curriculum is instructor-based, but utilizes many multimedia components, including videos, PowerPoint presentations, and hands-on activities designed to keep the curriculum dynamic and fun. The PROFITT pilot project, which wrapped up in July 2012, provided the curriculum development process with excellent feedback from instructors and participants. O ffenders at the Mountain View Unit even participated in the creation of the curriculum, as several of them have advanced certifications possessed by few people across the nation. “The braille program has given transcribers a reason for being, and it gives them a reason to get up every morning because they love doing what they are doing and they love seeing the finished product,” said Delores Billman, Industry Supervisor at the Mountain View Prison. “They certainly like to know that someone is using what they have done to better themselves.”
The curriculum has also been designed to allow for a great deal of flexibility in its implementation. Facilities and instructors will have the ability to assess the skills and needs of participating o ffenders, and can focus on areas where offenders need special focus. For example, some trainees may be quite familiar with basic computer hardware and software, but they may have never had a chance to learn how to create Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations. Activities such as designing a resume and cover letter reinforce computer skills while also instilling basic life skills. Through this curriculum, they will have the opportunity to greatly expand their knowledge-base, and have a better chance for success post-release.
Successful Re-Entry: A Story of Success
Carey Jackson is one example of how prisoner education and braille programs can change lives for the better. Mr. Jackson was incarcerated at Scott State Prison in Georgia in 2004, where he started working in the braille program as a way to get out of the dorms. While he says he struggled with braille transcription at first, Mr. Jackson stuck with the program and became captivated by the process. “Braille is not in itself
hard, but the concept of grasping dots as words takes time and patience. I am extremely glad for the skills I learned while incarcerated, and cannot imagine my life being where it is today without the opportunities I had there.” While the Georgia braille program is not part of Georgia Correctional Industries, the initiative is a great example of how partnerships can be forged in creating re-entry success. The Georgia Braille Transcribers (GBT) program is a collaborative effort between the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Georgia Department of Education, and Middle Georgia Technical College intended to provide an opportunity for o ffenders to learn braille transcription and create other accessible materials for print-disabled students, such as large print and electronic textbooks. The program provides books in braille for K-12 students in Georgia free of charge, thus saving the state thousands of dollars annually. The program merged two existing braille units in Georgia prisons, and is now located at Central State Prison in Macon, GA.
After earning advanced braille certifications in prison, Mr. Jackson began contracting as a braille transcriber upon release in 2009. His focus and determination eventually led him to become a full-time employee at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Alternative Media Access Center, where he is now the Braille Coordinator. His story serves as a shining example to o ffenders in Georgia and Texas, where he provided encouragement and feedback to participants during the PROFITT pilot project. “The broad skill set that can be gleaned from the PROFITT curriculum is pretty astonishing. The small business management and soft skills materials, coupled with the computer training, are exactly what we need to see provided to o ffenders everywhere,” said Mr. Jackson.
PROFITT Curriculum Distribution: Spreading Re-Entry Success
The PROFITT curriculum is currently being reviewed for approval by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Upon approval, it will be made available for distribution nationwide, and project staff will be available to assist correctional facilities with guidance on implementation thereafter. Our goal is for braille units and Correctional Industries across the country to take advantage of the PROFITT curriculum to supplement and enhance existing programs, start new programs, and provide us feedback on where the individual tracks may be improved. Even though the curriculum will be finalized within the grant period, the PROFITT curriculum is intended to serve as a “work in progress” since changes in technology will demand it be updated periodically. Likewise, project sta ff emphasized flexibility in the curriculum design, which ensures that any correctional facility can implement the curriculum as best suits their individual facility needs and structure. Tracks of the curriculum may be extracted and utilized separately in any correctional industry or vocational training area. Interested correctional facilities and industries should contact PROFITT staff to obtain curriculum tracks. Updates and additional information can be found at www.profitt.gatech.edu.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2010-RV-BX-005 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The BJA is a component of the OJP, which also includes the BJS, the NIJ, the OJJDP, the SMART Office, and the OVC. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the United States Department of Justice.
For more information on PROFITT, please contact:
Patrick Fraser, Program Coordinator
Providing Real Opportunities for Income through Technology (PROFITT)”
Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC)
Georgia Institute of Technology