They work in an airless cinderblock dormitory.
They make 20 cents an hour.
All of them are paying a debt.
And in some of the most impoverished countries on earth, nearly 6 million
people have these men to thank for seeing clearly—perhaps for the first time
in their lives—the world around them.
Since 1994, inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility—the DOC calls
them offenders, perhaps to remind them insistently of their past
mistakes —have been sorting, cleaning, repairing, and shipping used
eyeglasses for District 25-A of the Lions Club International as part of its
global vision mission.
Chesterton Lion Tom Lee is a liaison to the program, he visits the prison
every week to oversee operations, and recently he invited the Chesterton
Tribune to tour the facility.
* * *
Ryan’s our guide. He’s intelligent, polite, and gracious. He’s just
finishing a three-year jolt for dealing cocaine.
It’s hard to hear him, though, as he takes us around. The dorm has no
air-conditioning, it’s something like 97 outside and feels like an oven
inside, and the fans—they’re all over the place—make a helluva racket as
they blow hot air from over there to over here.
It’s a prison dorm, all right, no one would mistake it for anything else,
it’s dingy and cramped and gray. Except for the walls. Ryan is rightfully
proud of the walls, splashed by great rainbows of color: murals painted by
the inmates themselves. They’re bright and cheerful and they depict the
history of Lions International, the Eyeglass Collection Center at Wanatah, a
world map of Lion countries.
Also painted on the walls: testimonials from those who have passed through
* * *
Many of us have traveled roads that were a result of choices that we made.
But we learned that ever on the roads of recovery, we can and we are making
a difference in the lives of so many people both young and old.
* * *
Ryan’s first stop: the classroom where inmates must first complete a
seven-week optometry course arranged through Purdue University. Once a week
the students are tested, a Lion grades the exams, and—if they want in—they’d
better score at least an 85 percent.
All participants in the program are cross-trained in each of 11 jobs.
They’re taught to use lensometers to read eyeglass prescriptions; to sort
them by single or bifocal vision, by men’s, women’s, and children’s models,
and by designer and vintage styles; to mend broken pairs and to cannibalize
and recycle the unfixable ones.
* * *
God has blessed us with eyes to see, so always keep your eyes on the prize.
* * *
As of June 30, 2012, inmates at Westville Correction had processed a total
of 5,967,089 pairs of eyeglasses for the Lions, since the beginning of the
program in 1994: enough to outfit every man, woman, and child in the cities
of Chicago and Los Angeles with spectacles, if every man, woman, and child
in those cities were farsighted.
A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real tedium. But
hey, it’s prison, right? It’s not supposed to be exhilarating. Buddy on the
lensometer reads about 300 pairs a day, 800 a week. Charles in repair fixes
500 a week, 1,500 to 2,000 a month. And LaJae in recycling touches
“hundreds, hundreds, hundreds every day.”
“Not the most glamorous job but it’s necessary,” Ryan says. “It’s like a
“Only nicer,” he hastens to add.
There are perks, though.
Look for guards. See any? You don’t. All 25 inmates in the program are
considered “minimum security,” Ryan says. “It gives us a break to come up
here. We don’t have COs (correction officers) up here telling us what to do.
We govern ourselves while we’re working.”
Inmates who successfully complete 2,000 hours of service in the program—it
takes about a year to do that, Ryan says—also get six months cut from their
And there’s something else, more intangible. Or maybe the most tangible part
of the whole thing. “We’re helping,” Ryan says. “It’s life changing.”
* * *
Thanks to this program I have learned that things you do for yourself die
with you, things you do for others live forever.
* * *
In shipping Tom is packaging a Lions order for 57,880 pairs. It’s a 202-case
order: so many men’s bifocals, so many women’s singles, so many children’s.
“Lady’s glasses get the biggest orders,” Tom says. He doesn’t know why. To
fill this order, inmates tasked to the lensometers may have to read 100,000
Down in repair, Charles is grinding them out. If he can’t fix a pair, he
strips it down. “I’ve got thousands of screws,” Charles says. “Nothing goes
to waste.” Especially the designer labels and vintage frames: the Guccis,
the Versaces, the Hilfigers, the cat’s-eyes, the Buddy Holly horn-rims.
These Charles makes wearable and sets aside. Later they’ll be sold on the
Internet by a Lions affiliate and the proceeds used to purchase lensometers,
at $1,600 per.
“Whatever we give the Lions, 30,000 pairs, they give us,” Ryan says. “The
glasses rotate in and rotate out.”
* * *
Thanks to the Lions Club and this program for being part of a mission that
made me part of the light and warmth at the end of a cold and dark tunnel.
* * *
Ryan’s no fool. He knows that the odds are stacked against ex-cons, that a
lot of the men he knows in the joint are, or will be, frequent fliers. But
he’s got a life to go back to: a machinist’s job waiting for him, a young
daughter. And Ryan vows never to return. “No way. No way. No way.”
“Never give up. That’s what I’ve learned working for the Lions. That’s what
I tell my nieces and nephews. Never give up. You can make a difference.”