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  • A Surprising Connection Between the History of Braille and Folsom State Prison

    The United Nations recognizes World Braille Day each year on Louis Braille’s birthday, Jan. 4. For many years the inventor’s reading and writing system for the visually impaired has been an invaluable communication tool.

    Last year for World Braille Day, I took a deeper look at the little-known connection between Braille and those incarcerated at California’s Folsom State Prison.

    “Folsom State Prison” can bring up a wide variety of associations. For instance, one might be inspired to hum a few bars from Johnny Cash’s legendary live album recorded there. Or one might rattle off a partial list of famous (or infamous) people who were incarcerated there in the past: Charles Manson, Eldridge Cleaver or Suge Knight. Perhaps more personally, Folsom might bring up an emotional connection to a friend or family member that spent time there, as a prisoner oras a guard. Not many people hear the name Folsom and immediately think of Braille. But perhaps they should.

    Braille coin
    Coin commemorating the centennial of Louis Braille’s death

    My connection dates back to an opportunity I had to visit Folsom State Prison in the fall 2018. Nestled in green hills north of Sacramento, Calif., the prison is a series of beautiful stone buildings perched on a bluff over the American River. Inside the prison, there is a completely self-sufficient world of incarcerated people and prison employees, all living separated from the outside.

    As a person with no personal experience or connections with the penal system, all of this was rather astonishing to me. But the most surprising thing I saw at Folsom was a warehouse full of books in Braille and a small battalion of inmates typing away on Perkins Braillers.

    Braille is one of the best-known aids for people who are blind or have low vision. Braille is not a language like English or American Sign Language, but a code to translate any language into a series of raised dots that can be read by running one’s fingers across these raised dots. Developed in 1829, Braille writing has gone on to become the accepted standard for creating reading material for people who are blind.

    Connection Between Braille and Folsom Prison
    Lavender Braille Writer, circa 1962

    Braille can be used to convey literature, mathematical equations, scientific formulas, and even sheet music. American Braille translators undergo rigorous training from the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. As of 2017, there were only about 600 people certified in literary Braille, about 400 people certified in Nemeth (Braille for science notation), and only 30 people certified in music Braille.

    Astonishingly, one-tenth of those specialized translators are inmates at Folsom State Prison. Under the California Prison Industry Authority, people incarcerated at Folsom are allowed to pursue all of the Library of Congress’s Braille certifications, which gives those incarcerated both an opportunity for work in a quiet space outside of the hustle and bustle of the prison yard and acquire a set of marketable skills they can use after they complete their sentences and return to the outside world.

    Connection Between Braille and Folsom Prison
    Folsom State Prison, California

    Since 1989, many people at Folsom prison have taken to Braille translation with great enthusiasm. In fact, there are only 12 individuals in the world today who can claim to hold all three of the Library of Congress’s certifications, and three of those people are presently incarcerated at Folsom.

    In 2018, I had the opportunity to speak with one of those three people. Layale Shellman, who is currently serving a life sentence for a murder he committed in the 1970s, achieved six separate Braille certifications in six years. When I met him, Shellman was hardly what one might expect with a convicted murderer. I found him to be a very kind and unassuming person, a short man with a head full of white hair, and, as I could observe, an expressively devout Christian.

    Braille has now become his passion and life’s work, and he often develops pen pal relationships with blind people on the outside. Often, these blind people send him requests for new books or pieces of music that they would like to learn. He did not fit my mental image of an incarcerated person, and I doubt that he fits squarely into many people’s perceptions of an accessibility professional.

    There exists a patchwork of professionals and practitioners scattered around the country who work together to provide accessibility aids and lifestyle care for people with low vision and people who are blind. The Braille translators at Folsom State Prison are just one part of this greater tapestry but they probably contribute to this community with more enthusiasm as anyone outside the prison walls.

    My visit to Folsom State Prison gave me a much more nuanced picture of incarcerated life and expanded my associations with the people of Folsom. I think of Layale Shellman and the other Braille translators any time I see Braille outside prison walls, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to widen my understanding of just how that Braille got there.

    If you want to learn more about Louis Braille, check out his biography on the website for the Academy’s Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye®. For more Braille-related artifacts, use the “Collections Search” function on the museum website or the museum’s mobile app, available for free from Google Play and in the iPhone app store. All images courtesy of either the Truhlsen-Marmor museum collection or of Aubrey Minshew, MA.