Braille Monitor                                                                                May-June 1986

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What Happens to the Blind in Prison?

by Loraine Stayer

"For two years," says Thomas MeAvoy, an inmate at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, soon to face the parole board, "I sat on my bed, except to go to the bathroom." If not for the many books (talking books) brought to him at Greenhaven by Charles Piera, a literacy volunteer and school prison coordinator, MeAvoy says, he would have gone out of his mind. MeAvoy is blind, as a result of an injury he sustained in prison. Currently he and a dozen or so others are confined at Napanoch in a unit named after its inhabitants: SDU, Sensorially Disabled Unit. The unit contains some deaf inmates as well.

MeAvoy goes on to complain that, until recently, he and the other blind inmates in the unit really had no direction and no efficient use of the facilities designed to improve the lot of the blind in the New York State prison system. Though the unit had Braillers, Optacons, and various other modern technology, the inmates had no directions on how to use them. They spent their time making baskets in the prison's sheltered workshop.

The change came in December of 1985, when in response to McAvoy's letter to the National Federation of the Blind, a correspondence was set up between the unit and members of the Federation in New York. The correspondence quickly blossomed into an exchange of information and the beginnings of a chapter of the National Federation of the Blind in the' Unit. To date the chapter is still unofficial. The members of the unit have not had much input or cooperation from the director of the unit, Fred Hirsch, who is IHB (Industrial Home for the Blind) trained. The unit does not have adequate mobility training. There has not been any real effort to give Braille skills. Many of the men will be paroled into a situation where they lack even the basic housekeeping skills to live alone. These skills, and many others so necessary for the blind to survive and compete in today's society, could be given to them through the Commission for the Blind of New York State and, indeed, the Commission promised to give them to prisoners within eighteen months of release. This, according to MeAvoy, would apply to just about every one of the men on the unit. However, to date, the promise remains just that: a promise.

At a recent meeting of the unit's Self-Assessment Profile Rap group another inmate, Martin Ross, who will return to Queens when paroled, mentioned that he was prescribed a cane by a doctor three years ago, and he is still waiting. Sam Merchant, who is awaiting surgery for cataracts, comments that he would never use a guide dog, because he would be "ashamed to be seen on the streets" with one.

MeAvoy, who comes before the parole board in March of 1986, has vowed that he will "never make another basket." He hopes to enter New York College and train for the Law. There is a lot of activity at the SDU at Napanoch now that the men have discovered the existence of the Federation, as well as certain agencies for the blind. There could be a lot more if we could awaken the people in the prison system and those in charge at the Commission for the Blind.

There is a tendency for those on the outside to close their eyes to the prison system and pretend it doesn't exist. But to the men and /or women incarcerated within the problem doesn't go away. And as for the rest of us, we have to care. If our brothers and sisters are locked up with nothing to do, it reflects on the rest of us. And it involves the rest of us. The men on the SDU are there for relatively minor offenses, some having to do with nonpayment of child support. They are us, and we are them, to put it plainly. The only difference is that we can leave our beds for more than our bodily functions. So the answer to the question "What happens to the blind in prison?" is up to us.

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