Blind Vendor Still In Jail

by Donald J. Morris

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: When the rights of blind people are in question, one never knows when lightning is going to strike or where. On May 13, 1992, Sharon Maneki, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, and members of the state's merchants division, received the first news of Baltimore County's impending action against Bill Ramsey, the blind vendor who ran the food and sundries concession at the county jail. The following five days of hectic activity resulted in the gathering of a large group of blind supporters at the May 18 meeting of the Baltimore County Council on Bill Ramsey's behalf. Here are the details as written by Don Morris, Treasurer of the Maryland Merchants Division, in the Summer, 1992, edition of the Braille Spectator, the publication of the NFB of Maryland:

          The title of this article might surprise you; you'll be even more surprised to learn that this is good news. Bill Ramsey, a long-time vendor in the Maryland Vending Program, has successfully operated the prisoners' commissary at the Baltimore County Detention Center. Bill has done an excellent job, receiving praise from county officials and from satisfied customers. That's not all. Bill has donated television sets and other such items to the benefit of prisoners' recreation areas, and he has been an all-around good citizen.

          All of this aside, County officials had decided to throw Bill out of jail and bring in another vending company that promised to pay the county a big commission for running the place.

          A reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper learned of the plan at a county budget meeting. He reported on the proposed action, and the matter was brought to the attention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland's Merchants Division. Joe Byard, president of that group, and George Fear, member, called radio stations and started telling Bill's story. The Maryland Committee of Blind Vendors, the official advisory body for the Maryland vending program, passed a motion to come to Bill's defense, but other than that the Committee took no action.

          Sharon Maneki learned that the County Council would be meeting on Monday, May 18, and suggested that Federationists attend to take part in the citizens' speak-out portion of the meeting. Because of the quick work done by Sharon and Joe, approximately thirty blind people (blind vendors and members of the NFB) came to the meeting. Testimony on behalf of Bill and the vending program was provided by Sharon Maneki, Jim Gashel (Director of Governmental Affairs for the NFB and long-time advocate for blind vendors), Joe Byard, George Fear, and Al Hill (another Maryland blind vendor).

          The Council listened with interest and promised to talk to the County Executive. On Wednesday morning, two days after the Council meeting, County Executive Roger Hayden reaffirmed the County's satisfaction with Bill Ramsey. He went on to say that Baltimore County no longer has any plan to remove Bill from the business he has built or the customers he serves.

          The people who organized support for Bill and who spoke on his behalf were certainly the leaders in this crisis, but it is also true that many other people played an important part in persuading the County Council to keep Bill Ramsey in his vending location. Everyone who attended the meeting or made phone calls or wrote a letter helped to win this victory. The National Federation of the Blind can fairly take credit for protecting the rights of a blind vendor who was at the mercy of the political establishment. Here is the letter I wrote to William Howard, Chairman of the Baltimore County Council, explaining the situation:

Emmitsburg, Maryland
May 18, 1992

Honorable William Howard, Chairman
Baltimore County Council
Baltimore, Maryland

Dear Sir:

          This letter is written in support of Bill Ramsey and for continuing his opportunity to support himself and his family by serving the needs of prisoners at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

          Mr. Ramsey is a blind person who has been a participant in the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind (MVPB) for more than ten years. For the past eight years he has operated the prison commissary facility in Baltimore County.

          In the middle 1970's Baltimore County recognized that it was a losing proposition to operate this facility with County Detention Center employees. Baltimore County approached the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind to learn of any interest on the part of MVPB in operating this activity. In the early days the operation was only marginally profitable. However, the application of management expertise by the MVPB and the commitment of the blind managers operating the facility have made this a viable facility. This commitment, coupled with increased detention center population, results in this facility's now generating an income which puts Bill Ramsey approximately on a par with the average income of all other working Marylanders.

          Unlike most of those working Marylanders, however, Mr. Ramsey bears expenses not typically faced by other taxpayers. Mr. Ramsey is blind. As a blind person doing business in the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind, Mr. Ramsey is required to remit 8- 1/2 percent of his income to the MVPB. This assessment helps to fund the Maryland Vending Program and helps to create additional employment opportunities for other blind people who are striving to be taxpayers, not tax users.

          According to Department of Labor statistics, seventy percent of all able-bodied working-age blind people are unemployed. When unemployment among the sighted population reaches a level of seven percent, society is rightly concerned. Even at that high level (seven percent), work opportunity for blind people is worse by tenfold. If Baltimore County denies Bill Ramsey the opportunity to pay his own way, Bill Ramsey will no longer contribute to society but will be dependent on public assistance for his livelihood.

          Mr. Ramsey has sighted employees who will likely join the growing ranks of unemployment recipients. They, however, will have better prospects for future work than will Bill Ramsey. If Baltimore County forces him out of the small business he has built and nourished, not only will Bill suffer, but the taxpayers (including those in Baltimore County) will be required to provide Bill's maintenance and support. This will benefit no one.

          Baltimore County Detention Center establishes the prices for which Bill can sell his merchandise; they establish the products he is permitted to sell; they require that Bill employ and pay for off-duty guards to assist in the delivery of merchandise to prisoners; and, of course, they require that Bill maintain absolute security to prevent the distribution of contraband which could threaten the lives of working prison employees.

          It is true that Baltimore County does accounting for prisoner funds and makes appropriate deductions for those prisoner accounts when purchases are made from the commissary. This cost is borne by Baltimore County. Please note--this expense will continue whether Bill Ramsey or any name vending company is operating the commissary.

          Bill Ramsey is a good business person. Where profits can be made consistent with good customer service, Bill will make them. Presumably another vendor would try to do the same. In a recent newspaper article Baltimore County representatives were quoted as saying, "Another company would pay the county $50,000 for the opportunity to run this commissary." That is simply not consistent with reality. Any corporate entity that tries to run this facility with a non-resident manager, instead of an on-site entrepreneur, will simply not be able to generate sufficient funds to make such commission payments to Baltimore County, to generate corporate profit, and to provide customer service of the quality now being offered. This would not be the first instance in which unrealistic promises were made in an attempt to gain a foothold. Once Baltimore County has gone through the ordeal of changing to the new supplier, you will likely hear that previously unforeseen conditions are causing the new supplier to renege on the original deal and that projected commissions will not materialize.

          Baltimore County Detention Center employees argued that the unappropriated funds generated from vendor commissions will permit them to provide accouterments for prisoners at no cost to the County. But in the newspaper article they failed to mention that on a number of occasions Bill Ramsey has donated television sets and related items to the Baltimore County Detention Center for use as deemed advisable by Detention Center officials.

          Consistent with State budget reductions, Baltimore County must surely face similar budget pressures. While this is a very real and pressing problem, it is simply not acceptable to expect one blind person to pay the cost of correcting it. Surely you will want to avoid, if possible, assessing higher taxes to Baltimore County residents; this is a laudable objective. However, taking 100% of Bill Ramsey's income is not an acceptable means of achieving this end.

          Bill Ramsey is facing a dilemma in that, if he does nothing, he loses his livelihood. If he speaks out, he runs the risk of alienating Detention Center officials. Caught in this dilemma, Bill was forced to speak out. As a result, evidence of retaliation has been reported to me in that Bill was left locked in an isolation area between two cell blocks for more than twenty minutes.

          Not only must Baltimore County Council representatives support Mr. Ramsey in his effort to provide for himself and family while serving Baltimore County; you must take appropriate measures that will assure that Mr. Ramsey does not experience any further harassment or misuse of official powers.

Very truly yours,
Donald J. Morris, Treasurer
National Federation of the Blind
Merchants Division

          P.S. The media and public sentiment are overwhelmingly on the side of right. Bill Ramsey is receiving support expressed in the strong public outcry against Baltimore County. Your prompt action in favor of Mr. Ramsey will quickly broaden this support to include Baltimore County, this time as the good guys.

          That was the letter I wrote to the Baltimore County Council on the day of its meeting to consider this issue. The following day the Baltimore Sun carried a story by Larry Carson, which described the meeting and the testimony that was heard. The article was published the day before the Council actually decided to retain Bill Ramsey in his location. Here it is:

Baltimore County Council Hears Appeal
To Keep Blind Vendor

          A group of about twenty blind people went before the Baltimore County Council last night to ask that Bill Ramsey, a fifty-two-year-old blind vendor, not be forced out of his business of operating a snack and toiletry shop in the county's detention center in Towson.

          The administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden is considering a proposal to hire another contractor--who is not blind--to run the stand in exchange for a percentage of the profits.

          "Where is it going to stop?" asked Alfred Hill, who is legally blind and operates a similar stand at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.

          Sharon Maneki, President of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, told the council that replacing Mr. Ramsey with another private contractor who is promising to pay the county part of his profits would "set a dangerous precedent and will weaken the program for the blind."

          James Gashel, another Federation officer, said unemployment runs around seventy percent among the blind and that 4,000 blind vendors compose the largest single employment group among people with the disability nationally. The vendors operate in many public buildings under a 1936 federal law that created the blind vendors program. "He's not just another contract vendor," Mr. Gashel said of Mr. Ramsey.

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