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As coronavirus spreads in Maryland prisons, a small team of inmates makes 24,000 masks, other protective gear

About 75 Maryland prison inmates have made more than 24,000 cloth masks, 18,000 plastic face shields, 4,000 bottles of hand sanitzer and 1,900 protective gowns. Inmates at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown make hand santizer at the institution in this photo provided by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
About 75 Maryland prison inmates have made more than 24,000 cloth masks, 18,000 plastic face shields, 4,000 bottles of hand sanitzer and 1,900 protective gowns. Inmates at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown make hand santizer at the institution in this photo provided by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. (MD Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services)

Typically, the incarcerated men and women who work inside Maryland’s prisons build furniture, sew bedsheets and make American flags.

But last month ― when the first cases of the novel coronavirus were detected in the state ― they pivoted to a new operation: protecting their fellow Marylanders.

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“We thought, ‘How could we produce things to help in the crisis?’” said Robert L. Green, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “We started looking at the cloth sneeze guards. We’ve had sewing factories for years in our system. This was an area where we could repurpose those to help."

To date, about 75 inmates have made more than 24,000 cloth masks, 18,000 plastic face shields, 4,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 1,900 protective gowns ― all items that have been in short supply and are needed to slow the spread of the pandemic.

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The inmates ― who volunteer for the jobs and receive “good time” credits that accrue toward their early release and a small amount of hourly pay ― have produced enough masks and face shields to outfit each of the more than 4,000 correctional officers in the system. Additional supplies are going to protect the inmates themselves from the spread of the disease, and then inmate-produced gear will go to other state agencies, Green said.

Even Gov. Larry Hogan has worn a black mask made by the inmates.

“The mask that I was wearing was made by prisoners at the Maryland correctional facility,” the Republican governor said as he recently toured a field hospital being set up at the Baltimore Convention Center. “They’re very happy to be doing this and be part of the solution. They’re excited to be in some way helping their fellow Marylanders.”

While state officials tout the operation, prisoner rights advocates argue the program exploits prison labor and the workers should be paid much more than the low wages allowed under Maryland law.

Julie Magers, who leads the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, says the inmates are providing a critical function during the pandemic.

“The amount of pay is completely inadequate for what they’re doing," she said.

Prison officials did not provide details about how much the inmates were being paid, but said they were receiving a type of emergency bonus pay. Maryland Correctional Enterprises typically pays its inmate workers between 17 cents to $1.16 an hour, state records show.

The operation run by Maryland Correctional Enterprises comes while the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread behind bars. More than 150 people who work or live in Maryland’s prisons have been infected with COVID-19, including 39 inmates. Outbreaks have been detected at 11 institutions. One prisoner, a man in his 60s, died from the disease.

The prisons involved in the manufacturing include the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover on the Eastern Shore, the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, and both the Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Green said the inmates in the program wear protective gear while working and follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control social distancing guidelines. His office supplied photos of workers wearing full-body protective suits.

“The inmate population that works in these programs, in a human crisis, they are pleased and proud of the opportunity they have to lend a hand to the community and try to make a difference,” Green said.

Prison officials also declined to allow The Baltimore Sun to interview inmates involved in the work.

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Officials did allow a few inmate workers to record video statements to send to The Sun about the jobs they’re doing.

“It’s an honor,” one worker said in a video. “On behalf of the men here at MCE, we’re honored to be able to participate in this endeavor to help with the greater good of society. We not only want to leave here and be productive members of society, but we’re starting in here by being productive.”

State Sen. James Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, said he thought it was “terrific” news that the protective gear made by inmate workers was going out to both prison staff and the incarcerated.

“Prisons are like colleges and nursing homes,” Rosapepe said. “They’re in very close quarters. Folks who are institutionalized are at particular risk. I’m glad they’re starting to protect the prisoners, as well as the staff.”

Even so, Rosapepe said, he’s heard concerns from union officials who represent correctional officers that the masks produced by the Maryland Correctional Enterprises are not the N95 respirator masks used in health care settings.

Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3 union, said union leaders had to push the state for weeks to equip correctional officers.

“They finally made the face masks mandatory, after we kept on pushing them for a month,” Moran said. “The officers have face masks; they have face shields; they have gloves and sanitizer. But they’re not proper [protective gear]. They’re not the proper N95 masks. The masks are fine if you’re walking out on a street. It’s not fine in a prison."

Magers said she’s not surprised that the inmates involved in the operation take pride in their work.

“They’re proud to do good work, of course," Magers said. “I’m sure they’re very happy to be helpful. Most of them are happy to get out of their cell."

But she said incarcerated individuals should be outfitted with the same protective gear that officers have.

"They’re making all these masks. When are they going to see protective PPE?” Magers asked.

Under pressure from advocates, prison officials in recent weeks have taken steps to try to reduce the population of correctional facilities to help slow the spread of the virus.

Hogan signed an executive order last week to expedite the release of hundreds of inmates. The order speeds up the release of inmates who were already eligible to be released within the next four months and the processing of inmates eligible for home detention. The order also directs the Maryland Parole Commission to accelerate consideration of parole for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who are older than 60, have a good record while incarcerated, and have an approved plan for reentry to society.

State officials estimate the executive order will result in the early release of about 800 additional inmates.

About 18,400 people are in state correctional custody. Since March, the population of people incarcerated at state-run prisons and jails has declined by about 650.

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Magers said the only way to ensure prisons remain safe from the virus is to continue to lower the number of inmates. She said the health care system behind bars is “kind of a mess.”

“They need to de-carcerate as much as possible,” Magers said. “De-carceration is the only way to really fix the problem.”

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