BLYTHE, Calif. -- Rolando Rodriguez, an inmate at Ironwood State Prison, got the best birthday present he could ask for three days before he turned 36. His 16-year-old daughter called to say she was proud of him.
Rodriguez credits his daughter, who was 7 when he was incarcerated for assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer, as the reason he joined a training program at Ironwood to become a certified Braille transcriber.
The program not only helps him regain his life but also provides Braille and electronic books for blind and disabled students.
"It's the ultimate feeling that you can have: making a difference for someone else," Rodriguez said. "It's amazing to know the feeling that we're taking the taxpayers' income by being here, but we're actually giving back to the community. I feel useful."
The Alternate Text Production Center Braille program, considered the cream of the jobs crop at Ironwood, is in a row of bungalows near the main prison yard. Sheltered from the sweltering desert heat, the center has three rows of computers that read "Inmate Access Approved." The workstations have software that allowed inmates to transcribe, format and proofread Braille.
Through a grant, the production center pays the inmates 55 cents to $1.35 an hour, depending on their level of expertise.
During the five-year program, inmates can eventually be certified by the Library of Congress in literary Braille and learn specialized Braille texts like math and science.
The center has worked with Ironwood inmates since 2008. Seven inmates have been certified in literary Braille so far, and 13 Braille and 148 electronic books for the disabled have been produced, according to the prison. Those materials go to community colleges across the state and other institutions nationwide.
If the inmates are paroled, they can do the work as independent contractors from wherever they live.
Model inmates must take a test to get into the program. Many said it has helped transform their lives and taught them a trade they can use in a work world that often shuns ex-convicts.
Earl Pride, Ironwood's Braille coordinator, said the program helps in the rehabilitation process; it can mean a job in a rough economy and also reduce recidivism. Finishing the tedious program in a prison environment shows tenacity and dedication, he said.
"The program has been a beacon of light in a storm. It has created hope within an institutional setting," Pride said.
Saralyn Borboa, a Braille instructor based in San Diego who visits the prison twice a month, helps inmates understand the nuances of Braille translation and how to convey an author's message without changing the words. Borboa, a literary specialist with the National Braille Association, recently discussed how to deal with foreign words that are italicized and what to do if a word cannot be found in the dictionary.
Glen Kuck, an administrator for the San Bernardino college district, said he was impressed by the inmates' professionalism and dedication.
"Seeing the level of work, the education, the training and the red tape that they have to commit themselves to get through -- that's huge. ... The amount they are able to do is overwhelming," Kuck said.
Timothy Malone, 31, of San Jose, said the program has expanded his knowledge and helped him get away from the typical prison life.
"At first it was just dots to me, but to actually see what goes into it makes every single dot that much more important," said Malone.
His day, like the other inmates', starts at 5 a.m. Breakfast is served at 6 a.m., and the work starts at 7 a.m. The inmates get a lunch break at 10:30 a.m., and the workday usually ends about 2 p.m.
Andy Enriquez grew up with the wrong crowd and got into a life of crime at a young age, he said. At 18, while in a gang, he shot and killed a person "without even thinking about it," he said. "That was the worst choice of my life."
Today at 32, he is studying the ministry and trying to steer his younger brother down a different path. He has been in the Braille program for three years and is now certified in literary Braille.
Aside from learning how to read Braille, Enriquez said, the program has taught him how to organize files, work on deadline and multitask. He hopes one day to produce Braille books for a Christian printing company.
David Rey, 31, hopes to open a drug-counseling program for troubled youths and teach them how to translate Braille.
"Having a trade like that and giving them the proper counseling will show them another way, so they don't end up here like us," said Rey, who is in prison for murder. "We took from society and now we're trying to give something back, instead of dropping dead."
(Contact Cindy Von Quednow of the Ventura County Star in California at CVonQuednow@vcstar.com)