Reading for the Blind Program thrives at USCF

It’s the quiet. It’s what makes it stand out in a place of constant noise.

Which is strange, because the Reading for the Blind Program at the Utah State Correctional Facility (USCF) is all about sound.

The program utilizes incarcerated individuals to give a voice to novels, plays, magazines and more. Their audience will be some of the millions of sight-impaired people who participate in the National Library Service, a free benefit provided to qualified participants by the Library of Congress.

Reading for the Blind has been a part of the Utah Department of Corrections for over 40 years, first at Utah State Prison and now at USCF.

“It’s so meaningful, not only to those who get our work, but to those who work here,” said Teena Brown, who oversees the program at the facility. “Once I got started, I fell in love with it.”

Yet a hush prevails inside the classroom-sized office tucked near the Bear housing units. Those whose job it is to vocally project and speak clearly do so in recording booths behind soundproof doors. Others wear headsets while silently editing the day’s recordings.

“I love it, the whole thing, (including) the quiet,” said Russell Black, who is incarcerated at USCF. He worked in other positions with Division of Prison Operations and with Utah Correctional Industries before landing at the program five years ago. He now does repairs on the digital talking book players, used by patrons of the library to listen to audiobooks and magazines. He fixes about 30 a month.

“It’s one job that gives meaning to us doing something for those who can’t do it themselves,” he added.

The NLS began with passage of the Pratt-Smoot Act in 1931, designed to provide books to blind adults. Its co-author was U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah. The act was amended in 1933 to include talking books.

The Utah State Library administers the program not only for Utah, but for Alaska, Montana and Wyoming as well. It also provides braille material for an additional 19 states, said Lisa Nelson, program manager at the Utah State Library.

“We’re very impressed with the quality of material they produce,” said Nelson. “They do a great job.”

Quality, and quantity. The state library has a recording studio as well, but it is staffed by volunteers who may be in the office a day or two a week. The 16 or so staffers at USCF are there five days a week, cranking out content.

“We can get things done a lot faster there,” noted Nelson. “They really do have a quick turnaround.”

Small projects can be done in a week. Bigger projects, like entire books, take more time, said Christie Jensen, who has worked for the UDC for nearly 18 years and is currently the Library Director at USCF.

“A few years back we did the entire Old Testament,” she said.

Originally done on vinyl records and then cassette tapes, the service now uses a proprietary flash drive player that can hold 5 to 7 books, noted Nelson. The prison program has kept up, using modern digital editing and recording.

Yet staff and offenders agree that while the work is enjoyable, the importance behind the program is what gives them the greatest satisfaction.

“It’s always the one thing we can feel good about,” said Jensen. “We try to remind our offenders often how this work is meaningful. This program has impact.”

Brown understands. She originally applied for what she thought was a library position at the UDC 18 months ago. Taking the position of program manager has been a godsend for her.

“I didn’t know I was looking for it, but I’m so glad I found it.”