For 20 years, Ladji Ruffin has been living behind bars, each day knowing he killed his mother.
“I’m going to have to live with that because when I look in the mirror, I see her,” Ruffin said Thursday from inside Central State Prison.
Ethel Thomas taught seventh grade social studies at McEvoy Middle School when she was shot three times in the head in 1994.
Ruffin was having trouble in college and his mother had taken away the 19-year-old’s car.
“I was just young, a hothead,” said Ruffin, now pushing 40, and looking studious in his prison-issue, retro-framed spectacles.
He said he’s taken responsibility for his crime and now tries to learn as much as he can.
“That’s why I’ve gotten as much education as possible, just to be the man she wanted me to be,” Ruffin said.
The Library of Congress has certified him in Braille transcription, and he’s learned the Nemeth method for math and science, too.
Ruffin is one of 19 inmates currently working in the Braille Transcription Program begun in 2003 at Scott State Prison in Milledgeville, which closed in 2009. The program shifted to the Macon prison five years ago.
Through 2013, the program produced $1,665,250 worth of transcriptions for the blind and sight-impaired. Most of the free prison labor benefits visually impaired Georgia students.
One printed book could translate into two dozen volumes in Braille.
Once a textbook is complete, which can take up to a year, school systems from other states can purchase copies.
Proceeds from the sales funnel back into the project for computers and equipment.
The project made $7,850 last year on nine books. Since 2003, $30,765 has come in from sales.
“It gets them out of the dormitory and gives them something to keep busy and keep out of trouble,” said Angie Scott, a director of the program.
Inmates are thoroughly screened after writing an application letter.
They must have already been incarcerated for five years and have at least five years left to serve. They are tested in math and reading before going through extensive interviews.
“It’s not an easy program,” said Betty Lance, program coordinator. “I tell them all the time, I couldn’t do it.”
A couple of the men are working on digital media for the visually impaired. They convert book pages to digital documents so that type can be enlarged, or enhanced for those who need darker backgrounds or brighter font colors to make reading easier.
Another team meticulously glues tiny pieces of string to lift letters off a page. They make graphs and illustrations the same way. Heat shapes special paper over the mold.
Each worker seemed genuinely excited about the job and was happy to explain his task for visitors during Thursday’s open house.
“I’m the only certified person in the state of Georgia who can repair the Perkins Brailler,” said Richard Bailey, who fixes machines for the Georgia Academy for the Blind. “I like it. It’s very interesting.”
Georgia Department of Correction’s newly appointed assistant commissioner for education and programs, Buster Evans, said the prison system also is developing programs for welding, diesel mechanics and other skills.
“If you’re a good diesel mechanic, you can make $75,000 to $80,000 a year,” Evans said. “Not everybody’s going to learn Braille transcription. This is an example of a program that works.”
At least 95 percent of Georgia inmates will be released someday, he said, and need skills to find work.
Randy Davis, 41, got out of prison last summer after spending seven years in the transcription program.
“It was overwhelming in a positive way,” Davis said of his transition back to private life. “By Day 2, I was already working, and by the end of the first week, I had more work than I could handle.”
In a “very dark period” in his life, he robbed a store to get money for drugs. Now he has his own transcription company and works as a Braille specialist for Georgia Tech, which typically does not hire convicted felons, he said.
“They felt I was valuable enough for them to make an exception,” Davis said.
He and two other graduates shared success stories and visited former colleagues during the reception.
Inmate Patrick Causey, of Macon, dropped out of school in the eighth grade.
“When I was on the streets, my mind wasn’t focused on anything,” said Causey, who was caught for armed robbery when he was 17.
With both parents abusing drugs, he did not have much of a chance and had to take care of himself, he said.
“In here, I didn’t have the chaos,” said Causey, now 25. “I could settle in and focus on myself.”
The men he works with eight hours a day seem like a second family.
His biological family sees a new man.
“They don’t know how I came from where I started to this right here,” he said with a smile.
He looks forward to working in an office on the outside one day.
Marie Amerson, who directed the program for six years, said the recidivism rate for graduates is virtually zero.
“After they’ve been in the program, they realize they’re doing something to help someone,” Amerson said.
Ruffin, who could be paroled in three years, said the work gives him hope.
“I gives me a chance to show I can be of service,” he said. “I’m not just wasting my time in prison.”
Warden Belinda Davis was pleased to open the gates for invited visitors to see the program.
“This is something the public needs to know about,” Davis said. “We’re not just locking folks up. They’re learning skills.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.