Three dozen inmates employed in the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center garment shop have begun making cotton face masks in an effort prison officials said could produce up to 500 of the protective items each week.
The masks will be used by inmates, correctional system staff and first responders on the front lines of Delaware’s COVID-19 response.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) says the skilled inmate workers normally cut and sew material from large rolls of red and white cotton cloth into the clothing worn by more than 4,200 inmates across DOC’s prison facilities.
Delaware Correctional Industries Trades Instructor Dion Hawkins says it was the inmates themselves offered to use their sewing skills to produce badly needed protective face masks.
Working with a team of instructors and inmate workers, Hawkins directed a plan to quickly develop a prototype mask last week. The mask used two layers of cotton cloth sewn together around a polyester filter designed to remove particles down to 3-10 microns in size.
Full production of the mask started Monday, and by mid-week daily volume increased to nearly 100 face masks.
Governor John Carney applauded the work as one of many “innovative solutions” the state needs during the health crisis.
In a Zoom video conference yesterday with staff in the prison garment shop, Governor Carney thanked them for their contribution to the COVID-19 response effort and got to see first-hand (via video) the production of the masks. “We’ll get through this, but we all need to pitch in and take this threat seriously.”
As many as a dozen inmates will support the operation by cutting patterns and sorting and packing masks, while another two dozen inmates will operate sewing machines to stitch the materials and add elastic ear loops.
State officials say the masks will be used in DOC facilities to protect staff, inmates and contractors. As inventory grows, the face masks will be offered to other first responders. DOC said its infirmaries and isolation units will continue to use medical-grade FDA-certified face masks and other Personal Protective Equipment produced by national manufacturers.
Inmate workers are paid an hourly wage set by state statute, ranging between $0.25 and $2.00 per hour depending on skill level and length of service.