LAURINBURG, NC – “Seeing dots all day, looking at a computer and going to bed at night, dreaming about dots,” said Malcolm Pfeiffer-El.
Allen Mayes, one of his co-workers, added, “Just the idea that the dots on paper, someone can read, it it’s fascinating.”
“I never saw this particular program coming,” stated Larry Demery.
Pfieffer-El, Demery and Mayes are three of 1,700 prisoners at Scotland Correctional Institution, a men's prison in Laurinburg, NC. They work in the prison’s Braille Transcribing Plant.
“I’m going to tell you this, “said Pfeiffer-El. “I can look at a regular book and still see braille.”
Braille is a form of written language for blind people, made of raised dots.
“Once they learn how to form and put those together, it’s just according to how they're placed or whether or not they have spaces before and after as to what it means,” said Cynthia Stubbs, the plant manager.
Stubbs explained a braille cell consists of six dots and each cell forms a word, a letter, or a part of a word. There’s close to 272 contractions in the braille system.
Scotland Institution is one of 35 prisons in the country to have a braille transcribing program and is the only one in North Carolina. When the program first started in 2011 at the facility, only six inmates went through training. Six years later, 23 inmates work in the plant and transcribed over 1,000 books in 2016.
“A lot of these guys can read braille just as fast as they can read print,” Stubbs explained.
The program, ran by Correction Enterprises, made $250,000 in 2016. The organization aids in rehabilitating inmates, through 32 revenue producing operations throughout North Carolina prisons. While the braille program causes the organization to lose money, because it’s technically a training program, braille transcribing remains a sought-after position for inmates, as it is one of the highest paying jobs.
“They go through a lengthy interview process before I hire them," Stubbs explained. "I have been doing braille for 21 years now, so I also ask if they read. Because if they’re an avid reader, they notice more.”
She added discussing her job outside of the prison bars, makes for interesting explanations.
“When you say, you teach braille, they’re thinking you’re teaching the child to read braille. I tell them, I don’t teach the child to read, I teach the adult to transcribe the print to braille. Someone has to make the dots for the child to read.”
North Carolina, Connecticut, Colorado and Wyoming request the transcriptions, ranging from the braille alphabet to math problems, science and music. Rape crisis centers, schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg county, colleges, universities and non-profits in Forsyth and Onslow counties receive the texts. Once a request for a book is received by Stubbs, she puts a team together, consisting of a lead transcriber, three or four secondary transcribers, someone to put together charts and images and someone to proofread.
It takes eight to 12 months to learn standard textbook braille formatting. Music braille, however, is so complicated, only 51 people in the country can transcribe it. Pfeiffer-El is number 51.
“In this environment that we’re in, where you know a lot of people don’t look to you to accomplish things in life, you have to be self-motivated," he said.
It took Pfeiffer-El two years to learn music braille. The nearly 42-year-old also has a double major in business administration and computer programming. It’s all a way to spend time, serving a life sentence.
“It happened in Benson (NC). My friends had an altercation with the guy. They wanted me to come out there and scare him and I carried a sawed-off shotgun,” Pfeiffer-El recalled. “And, so at the age of 19, I was found guilty of first-degree murder.”
Demery has spent two decades in prison, also for a murder he committed at the age of 17.
“Initially it was supposed to be a robbery, but things have a way of going in a different direction and the person got killed.”
Pfeiffer-El and Demery are both eligible for parole in a few years.
“I’m guilty,” said Demery. “I knew it from the beginning and I never tried to deny it. It was an issue back then of dealing with the guilt and trying to find a positive way to handle it.”
Mayes, in prison for larceny, will be released in 2018 and plans to make transcribing braille his full-time career.
“It’s challenged me in positive ways and made me realize I could do things I didn’t think I could do,” said Mayes.
After spending six years at Scotland Institution, Mayes will head to Kentucky following his release. There, he’ll enter an apprenticeship with the American Printing House for the Blind. After six months, there’s a possibility Mayes could get a job there or be sent back to North Carolina with a computer software and his first book to transcribe.
Mayes’ focus is on staying clean after his release. Although he’s been in prison before, Mayes has the numbers to back him this time. Only three percent or less of prisoners who learn braille end up back in prison.
Why? Stubbs explained the dedication behind learning braille, coupled with job assistance programs and decent pay, act as a deterrent.
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“They enjoy what they’re doing. To know that they’re responsible for that child having a book in the classroom. They’re just dedicated, they really are,” explained Stubbs.
Mayes added, “With the braille, I feel like every time I’m working, some kid is going to get that book and learn from it.”
“It’s things like that, that kind of made braille stand out for me,” agreed Demery.
Pfeiffer-El knows he took his youth for granted and said, “It is kind of ironic that I do find myself now in a position where I can give back. I can really benefit myself and others.”
“I took from society,” added Mayes. “I have a chance to do something to give back. Help me to help them.”