Increasingly, Inmates Are Put To Work Making Protective Pandemic Supplies

Across the U.S., arouns a million prison inmates are estimated to be employed within their incarceration. Some work jobs necessary for prison maintenance, from laundry to kitchens. Others, however, work for outside agencies, including manufacturing. In the last few months, many of them have turned their efforts to creating the protective equipment that helps limit transmission of illness, including COVID-19. The fruits of their labors will help protect medical staff, law enforcement, and inmates themselves.

Inmates protect themselves, others, by making protective equipment
Inmates sew protective masks at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, California, on April 22, 2020. – Inmates and Sheriff’s deputies at the prison are practicing COVID-19 measures including wearing masks, staying keeping a safe distance and doing more frequent cleaning at the facility. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP) (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Inmate labor is notoriously cheap, to the extent that watchdogs regularly flag it as abusive. In 2018, Newsweek profiled labor strikes within prisons, and noted some relevant statistics. In 8 states, some inmates aren’t paid for their labor at all. Those who are paid may be paid as little as 14 cents per hour, and higher-paid inmates in two states may make as much as $2 per hour for maintenance jobs. Still, employment within prison can be desirable, both for the pay and for the additional freedoms jobs afford. For corporations, prison labor is desirable for exactly the stated reason: it keeps costs low.

With the pandemic ravaging America, some of these corporations are turning their sights to personal protective equipment, and some inmates are freely donating their time to contribute to the cause.

In South Dakota, the Argus Leader reports, inmates are making masks, gowns, and plastic face shields that will be used by corrections staff.

In one North Carolina county, masks made by inmates were distributed to law enforcement. According to the Hickory Record, inmates at four prisons made masks that were in turn distributed to at least 70 sheriff’s offices across the state.

North Carolina inmates are also learning to make a type of sanitizing fluid that can be used with misting fans to disinfect large areas. These will be used in the prisons to sanitize shared areas, including dorms, gyms, and dining facilities. They’re also being purchased for use in schools, WRAL is reporting.

The Tennesseean reports that inmates in Tennesee prisons are making thousands of masks and hundreds of gowns per day, using donated material. The inmate-produced protective supplies will be used for medical facilities in the state.

Within prisons, containing infection can be difficult, especially where dorms and other shared spaces are utilized. The CDC had tallied nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 within U.S. prisons at the beginning of this month, according to U.S. News, and over 100 deaths of inmates and staff. Efforts to mitigate the spread have included limiting visitors and granting early release or transfer to home confinement for inmates who are at the highest risk for serious complications of the disease, and who are not considered a danger to their communities. However, for those inmates who continue to reside in confinement, use of protective equipment by staff may be an instrumental factor in safety as well.

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