Braille Behind Bars

Nowadays, opening an envelope with a handwritten letter tucked inside is as rare as hen’s teeth (a phrase hatched in mid-19th century America, where anyone with a chicken coop could see that birds have beaks, not teeth). But I digress from the subject of handwritten braille correspondence, which, like print, has been almost completely supplanted by emails and tweets.

So when a braille letter arrives at NBP, we expect something out of the ordinary. Take, for example, the braille letter from a federal prisoner serving a seventeen-month sentence for a white-collar crime. He wrote that his braille books had been confiscated when (as was customary for new arrivals) he was placed in solitary confinement. “I found myself alone with no radio, no braille, no audio. My only company was a talking watch. Three times a day a food tray passed through an open slot by silent hands…”

Hand reaching through a prison cell slot“And then, on the fifth day, a small miracle happened. A slim volume of braille was pushed through the slot, Syndicated Columnists Weekly. I literally cradled it. I read about the energy crisis, the upcoming Congressional elections…things going on in the world outside. And then I read it again and again. The promise of hope fanned by SCW in that cell made it, like nothing else, a part of life outside. As Joni Mitchell wrote, ‘…you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’”

I think he was wrong on that last account. We do know. Literacy—in print or braille—is a window to the world.

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