Toni Ann Gardiner, 42, and Ed Eames, 56, a blind couple from New York, journeyed by airplane and bus from their homes to this small town this week to visit with a dozen of their friends--murderers, robbers, rapists and embezzlers.
Their friends are inmates at the California Medical Facility State Prison at Vacaville and participants in a program that makes tape recordings of books for the blind.
"These prisoners are doing so much for the unseeing population. We just wanted to come here, to meet them and to thank them personally for their dedication to a program that means so much to the blind," said Gardiner, a rehabilitation counselor for the last 16 years at Kings Park Psychiatric Center, New York State Hospital.
Her fiance, Eames, is a professor of anthropology at Baruch College, City University of New York. They were accompanied to the prison by their guide dogs, Perrier, a black Labrador, and Ivy, a golden retriever.
The blind couple, who plan to be married in June, spent 10 hours visiting with the 12 convicts who run the Volunteers of Vacaville or, as the inmates call it, the blind project, inside the walls of this prison 65 miles northeast of San Francisco.
For 27 years prisoners at Vacaville have been recording books--best sellers, textbooks, mysteries, science fiction, Westerns, children's books and cookbooks--on tape for blind men, women and children all over America.
It is the oldest and largest projects of its kind in the nation.
"Their visit here is so special for us. We get letters of thanks from our blind patrons, but they never come inside the prison to meet us," said Edmund E. Kemper III, 38, the inmate who runs the program.
Kemper, a confessed mass murderer, has read onto tape cassettes more books for the blind than any other prisoner. He has spent more than 5,000 hours in a booth before a microphone in the last 10 years and has more than four million feet of tape and several hundred books to his credit.
Two large trophies saluting Kemper for his dedication to the program, presented by supporters outside the prison, are on display in the Volunteers prison office, which has eight recording booths, two monitor booths and a battery of sophisticated tape duplication equipment.
"I can't begin to tell you what this has meant to me, to be able to do something constructive for someone else, to be appreciated by so many people, the good feeling it gives me after what I have done," said the 6-foot, 9-inch prisoner.
Kemper is serving a life sentence for his 1973 conviction on eight counts of murder in a case that drew national attention. Kemper murdered and dismembered his mother, her best friend and six Santa Cruz-area women. He had previously been confined for five years at Atascadero State Hospital after he confessed to killing his grandparents when he was 15. He had been released from Atascadero when psychiatrists concluded that he was no longer dangerous.
Gardiner and Eames have corresponded with Kemper and the other prisoners for some time, but this was their first face-to-face meeting. The blind couple said it was an opportunity for "meeting the voices" that have entertained and enlightened them through the medium of recorded books.
Their prison friends asked them what it is like to be blind, how they function, how the public reacts to their handicap. The blind couple wanted to know what life is like for the inmates, how they would improve the prison system, what they think of the death penalty.
Eames, a strong advocate of the death penalty, expressed surprise when some of the men agreed with him.
Robert Plumb, 58, who has spent 30 years in prison and has been at Vacaville the last four years on a robbery conviction, told the couple about the "tremendous satisfaction" he receives doing something for the blind.
"This type of program is so important, so positive for people like us. All inmates should have something to do that is meaningful. This has helped me keep my sanity."
The prisoners work an eight-hour day making the recordings, handling requests, repairing Braille writers for schools and rehabilitation centers all over the country and doing the other work required. They receive a $36-a-month salary.
"But they don't stop with their eight-hour day. This is their whole life. They break for dinner, are back in here working another four hours until they have to return to their cells for the night count and lock up," said Patti Womer, 32, prison staff supervisor for the program.
For the blind there is a minimum charge of $3 a year and a maximum charge of $20 to borrow books from the Volunteers of Vacaville. The prison has a catalogue with 2,100 titles. For $3, a blind person may send in a book to be taped. A master copy is made and the book becomes part of the catalogue.
(There are a number of libraries with books for the blind throughout the country, coordinated by the National Library Service and the Library of Congress. The Volunteers of Vacaville catalogue is part of the Library of Congress reading resource for the unsighted.)
It costs $17,000 a year to run the Volunteers of Vacaville program. Except for the salary for Womer, who has other duties in the prison, no state funds are involved. Lions clubs, Rotary clubs and private individuals outside the prison sponsor the project.
A $100 donation provides four months of booth time; $300 provides a year. The sponsor as well as the reader receive credit at the end of the tape. The prisoners are seeking funds to upgrade their equipment.
For Gardiner and Eames to make a special trip to visit the Volunteers of Vacaville was typical of their lives despite their handicap. Last year they traveled to Israel, India and England.
Eames has written five books on anthropology, and he and his fiance together wrote a recently published book about guide dog schools.
"We feel so close to these guys," Gardiner said as she and Eames left the prison. "They send out a taped newsletter every other month in which they describe new books they have recorded and always mention something about themselves."
"It was something I'll never forget," Eames said. "I have never been in a prison before. Despite those awful crimes they've committed, those fellows are doing something positive for their fellow man. For that they've got to be complimented."