More than 3 million pairs of eyeglasses donated to needy since 1989
Story and photos by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
On a sunny afternoon at one of the state’s oldest prisons, two Lions Club members were proudly discussing a project going on behind the walls – The Folsom Project for the Visually Impaired.
The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) Digital Services Enterprise, also known as the California Assistive Technology Enterprise (CATE), provides a wide-range of services to assist the visually impaired and help rehabilitate inmates at Folsom State Prison.
Michael Retzlaff, of Elk Grove, is serving as District Governor elect for the Lions Club.
He was on hand May 20 to help deliver 5,000 pairs of eyeglasses to the prison to be refurbished by inmates. Once they’ve been sorted, cleaned, tested and repaired, the glasses are distributed to needy families in the U.S. and across the globe.
“This is a great project,” Retzlaff said. “Lions Eyes Across California was developed as a way to bring focus to our mission, which is vision, and to show that Lions Clubs are alive and well.”
He said Lions Clubs around California set up stations on March 28 to collect used eyeglasses.
“Our goal was to collect 15,000 pair of eyeglasses across the state,” Retzlaff said. “We had over 50,000 pair donated.”
Statewide, the clubs have already decided to do the project again in 2016, he said.
A vision for the future
Don Ring, of Folsom, helped start the prison’s vision program through the Lions Club.
“It started in 1989 and I was District Governor,” Ring said. “Cliff Johnson, a Folsom Host Lions Club member and an associate warden of Folsom Prison, came to me and said he had a project which was too big for one club to handle. I talked to the warden at the time and he was all for it.”
According to Ring, the project to assist the visually impaired started as inmates recording books on tape.
“Later we added the used eyeglasses and closed captioning,” he said. “We were doing books on tape for Amelia Diaz in Orange County. She was in second grade and she would write back in Braille to the inmate doing the recordings, William Cloud.”
According to Ring, Cloud asked if he could learn Braille.
“The inmate became so proficient at Braille, he was … eventually paroled,” Ring said. “He left here and went to work for a blind judge doing Braille in San Diego County. He’s just done fabulous. I even got him into a Lions Club down there.”
He said Cloud’s ambition started the Braille Program at Folsom State Prison.
“The whole thinking process changes for the inmates involved,” Ring said. “We started the program to help the blind but we were really amazed at what it did to help the inmates as well.”
Ring said a lot of people have been helped by the inmates at the prison.
“Since we started, we’ve done about 3 million pairs of eyeglasses,” said Ring.
CATE employs two civil service positions overseeing 20 offenders.
They provide services to produce products for the visually impaired in conjunction with the California Department of Education as well as other agencies, according to Michele Kane, Chief of CALPIA’s Office of External Affairs.
“The services include the creation of Braille books through the translation of literary books, textbooks, math, science and music books,” she said.
The program also makes visual/Braille evacuation maps for buildings.
Richard, an inmate in the program, said when he learned about the charitable nature of the work, it made him proud.
“When I first came here and found out they were going to (the needy), I felt good about that,” he said as he worked on a set of eyeglasses. “Kids, if they’re going to school, this (program) helps them.”
He said they often refurbish about 2,000 pairs of eyeglasses each week.
Mao, another inmate with the project, said he’s grateful to be able to help others.
“To me, it’s about giving back to society. One way to do it is to work here,” he said. “I got locked up when I was a child. This is something new for me. This is my first time having work experience.”
He said it’s helped instill a work ethic in him, which is something he didn’t have before incarceration.
“If I get out, God willing, I’d like to continue on this journey,” Mao said.
What is CALPIA?
CALPIA trains approximately 8,000 offenders each year in service, manufacturing and agricultural industries in California’s penal institutions. CALPIA is self-supporting and does not receive an appropriation from the state budget. CALPIA participants are returned to prison, on average, 26-38 percent less often than offenders released from the state prison system’s general population.
Learn more about PIA at pia.ca.gov.