Sarah Wallace is blind, but she can manage the heavy steel doors at the Alexandria City Jail as well as anyone.
Each weekday she counsels inmates who are nearing release. She tries to ease a rough transition to the outside world by finding jobs and solutions to problems peculiar to convicts.
Problems like who will give job recommendations for a former prisoner? Who will find work for the ex-convict while he stays behind bars? Who will arrange counseling for social or psychological problems? Who will keep a convict's family abreast of his situation in jail or help a family with solutions to the loss of a breadwinner, a mother, a son or daughter?
These are typical problems Wallace faces, and blindness apparently poses few obstacles to her efforts to solve them.
SParrow, a Golden Retriever trained as a seeing-eye dog, every day leads Wallace the five blocks from the Bureau of Rehabilitation's Alexandria office to the jail that she enters without difficulty when the door buzzer sounds.
During her daily visits, she usually meets with two prisoners to review how they have spent the time since she last saw them and to explain her accomplishments as their liaison to the outside world. As often as not, a prisoner will play with Sparrow during the interview.
She takes reminder notes with a braille slate, asks plenty of questions and spends most of her time out of the jail on the phone. She calls psychologists, employers, lawyers, families, physicians, halfway houses, senior citizen centers, ministers - a well-devloped network of community services she knows intimately after years of volunteer work in Alexandria.
"You're the only one around here who calls me Mrs. Wallace," she admonished one lieutenant at the jail who greeted her during her second week of visits to the jail, indicating the kind of rapport she expects to establish. "You can just call me Sarah."
Wallace, who holds a master's degree in sociology from American University, was hired this summer by the Bureau of Rehabilitation, a private social service agency that serves the needs of prisoners. Her salary is paid by a grant under the Labor Department's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act(CETA).
Neil Johnson, a supervisor with the Bureau, which is a United Way member, selected Wallace from among several applicants because of to her past counseling experience. Altogether, three CETA employes, funded by a grant expected to total $31,000, will work in the counseling project at Alexandria City Jail. Only $7,740 has been secured by the bureau so far for the project.
Wallace never intended to do prison work. Raised on a farm in Pinckard, Ala., where her father raised peanuts and cotton, Wallace was blinded in an accident at age 11. While watching a farm hand peel sugar cane to prepare syrup, Wallace was struck in the eye with a knife that slipped from the worker's hand.
She went to college in Alabama and joined the Virginia Commission for the Visuallu Handicapped as a counselor after graduation. She met her late husband, Richard, in Roanoke, where he read to the blind while attending Roanoke College. They moved to Washington when he came to work for the Defense Department.
Now, in her 40s, a soft-spoken woman with a distinct Alabama drawl, Wallace has a 15-year-old daughter in high school and a desire to stay permanently employed.
There is a possibility that she will be hired as a regular bureau employe after the CETA grant runs out nextsummer, a welcome prospect since she enjoys her new job - one that finally came through after looking for work three years.
T"It's not that different from other kinds of counseling I've done," said Wallace, who admits the job has changed her image of prisoners. "The point is that there is a need, whether it's helping somebody readjust to blindness or readjust to the outside world."
One day last month, she saw two prisoners - one young man charged with robbery and awaiting trial; the other, an elderly man serving several months in the Alexandria jail for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
To the one who was awaiting trail, she explained the job possibilities shehas discovered for him and offered to let the court know about the work potential the prisoner has if released. To the one serving time, she explained she will try to work for his early release and placement in a center for senior citizens("to keep him busy and out of trouble"). Shealso told him she had located a tape recorder for him and promised to find recordings of the Bible, since the prisoner is illiterate.
"They have all been very cooperative and very grateful for anything anyone does for them," Wallace said. "And it's very exciting for me, too. I spent a few sleepless nights when I started, but now I look forward to coming here."