Lion February 2013 : Page 24

Doing Good While Doing Time California inmates ‘rehabilitate’ eyeglasses by Katya Cengel

Doing Good While Doing Time

Katya Cengel

California inmates ‘rehabilitate’ eyeglasses

His nickname is Hillbilly. He says he is a former Marine who can teach people how to do two things–shoot and march. When asked why he is in prison he doesn’t offer an explanation–just an answer.

“I killed my wife.”

Mike LaFaver looks like he walked out of central casting for a gritty crime saga with his handlebar mustache, bald head and the sinewy arms of a manual laborer. He is 48 and has been in prison for 21 years, the last three at California Medical Facility-State Prison in Vacaville.

Despite his past, he works on behalf of the blind. His current prison job is recording audio books for the blind including children. He has processed innumerable donated eyeglasses, too, as part of the prison’s nonprofit Volunteers of Vacaville Blind Project. LaFaver sees his work for the visually impaired as a sort of retribution for the murder he committed. “I can’t make up for that, so if I can give back in some little way and maybe say, ‘look, I’m trying,’ then that’s all I can do,” he says.

Before he went to prison, LaFaver had never heard of Lions clubs. Then he took the job processing used eyeglasses donated to Lions in Sight of California and Nevada. The work got under his skin. While reading the prescription of the donated eyeglasses, he fixated on the idea of Lions leading the blind out of darkness. He translated this image onto paper in the form of a blind boy holding onto the mane of a lion. He created his painting using instant coffee grounds and presented it to members of Lions in Sight of California and Nevada. “That’s an inmate who knows the true meaning of what we’re all about,” says Past International Director Bill Iannaccone, chief operating officer of Lions in Sight of California and Nevada, which processes and distributes used eyeglasses to those in need in developing countries.

The painting hangs in the kitchen of the foundation’s Vallejo warehouse about 30 miles from the prison. It is here the eyeglasses go before they are sent to the prison and here they return afterward. The majority of recycled eyeglasses collected and sent from individuals, companies and Lions clubs in the West Coast end up here, says Iannaccone. Once they arrive they are sorted, cleaned and neutralized (determining the prescription) before being sent out to the foundation’s vision clinics that provide free basic eye care and eyeglasses. Since its founding by the late eye doctor Wayne Cannon in the 1980s, the nonprofit has conducted more than 190 clinic missions in 31 countries, serving over 193,000 people.

In a typical year the warehouse processes around 700,000 to 800,000 pairs of eyeglasses. In the last six months of 2011 they shipped out 300,000 pairs, leaving the 150-by-50 foot warehouse complex almost empty, says Carl Langhorst, the warehouse’s unofficial distribution manager. His definition of empty is relative though, and on this day there were still rows of boxed eyeglasses stacked half a dozen high near the entrance, several huge garbage bags of eyeglasses in a back corner and plastic tubs of eyeglasses along the walls. Lions staff the warehouse most weekdays, sorting, packaging and readying boxes of eyeglasses for shipment to the 10 to 12 mission clinics they conduct yearly.

In addition to serving as treasurer of his club, Langhorst spends 35 to 40 hours a month volunteering at the warehouse. A retired quality assurance chemist, he joined the Lions in 1975 after being diagnosed with astigmatism following an episode in which he nearly ran a car off the road at dusk because he couldn’t see it. When he started helping out at the warehouse in 2002 it was a maze of boxes. Now the majority of the boxes are in a back warehouse and the front warehouse has space for local volunteers to sort new arrivals, separating out the broken eyeglasses and also the more valuable ones. Certain metal and gold rimmed glasses are melted down, and Lions in Sight uses the proceeds from these to help cover operating expenses.

Those that are kept, about 60 percent, are cleaned by another group of volunteers, usually Leos. Cleaning is a fast interactive process that allows volunteers to chat and socialize while drying the glasses that have been dipped en masse in cleaning tubs. In two hours, 100 volunteers can clean around 9,000 pairs of eyeglasses.

Neutralizing is a solitary process that requires careful attention and patience as glasses are placed under a lensometer, a device which resembles a microscope. Each lens is held under the lensometer so the device can read the level of correction. Then the worker must determine whether the prescription falls within the range Lions in Sight accepts and next label and package the eyeglasses in individual plastic bags.

It’s hard to find volunteers willing to perform the tedious task. But prisoners are happy to oblige, says Lion Wayne Hoffmeyer, who brings eyeglasses to inmates at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, one of three prisons with which Lions in Sight currently works. Neutralizing eyeglasses provides them not only with a safe work environment away from the general population; it also gives them a sense of self-worth, says Hoffmeyer. Last year the inmates sent Hoffmeyer Christmas cards thanking him for the opportunity to give back.

“So I in turn sent them a Christmas card telling them that without them we couldn’t do the job that we do,” says Hoffmeyer.

It isn’t an exaggeration. Without the inmates, Lions in Sight would only be able to do one or two clinics a year instead of the 10 to 12 they do now, says Iannaccone. “It’s invaluable what the prisons do for us,” he says.

The Vacaville Blind Project is clearly a two-way street. A more than 50-year-old partnership between prison staff and inmates, the project is the one place in the prison where there really is rehabilitation going on, says Patrick Sahota, the correctional officer in charge of the project. Inmates learn valuable life skills while fulfilling their work requirement in relative comfort. Securing one of the 20 sedentary jobs in the air-conditioned Blind Project offices is considered “cushy” compared to the usual mopping and cafeteria details, says Sahota.

To join the project inmates must have a GED or high school diploma, have at least three years left in prison and be disciplinary-free for a year. Those who have committed sexual crimes or those who have had drug or violence issues while incarcerated are not eligible. Qualified inmates who pass two rigorous interviews are hired to neutralize eyeglasses, record books on tape, transcribe books into Braille or repair Perkins Braille Writers. The eyeglass detail pays about 18 cents an hour while the other jobs pay up to 95 cents.

Before he transcribed books into Braille, José Sandoval spent two years neutralizing eyeglasses. One of the reasons he stayed with the job so long was a story that visiting Lions in Sight members told him. The men told Sandoval about an African woman who was able to see the face of her child clearly for the first time after receiving a pair of eyeglasses. Sandoval, who is 38 and has been incarcerated 19 years, says the story helped him realize the extent to which he was aiding the needy through his work with Lions.

“There aren’t many jobs in prison where you’re able to do something positive and give back to society,” says Sandoval, who is serving 30 years to life for first-degree murder. “Helping the visually impaired gives you that opportunity to at least begin to make amends and repay that huge debt that I know I owe to society.”

Mohammad Ali is under no illusion that he will ever be able to make up for the two lives he took. A small man with graying hair, Ali looks like he belongs in a university. Instead he is serving two 25-year, first-degree murder sentences.

“You can’t pay back a debt like that,” said Ali, who is 51 and has been in prison since 1982.

All he can do is try to give back to society, and by neutralizing eyeglasses he is able to both give back and learn skills that he can possibly use outside one day.

“I look forward to coming to work,” he said. “I would rather be here doing something positive than not having something to do.”

Digital LION
Watch a video on a Lions’ recycling project at Folsom Prison at

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