91ºF

Texas turns to prison labor to help cover face mask shortages

Texas state senator John Whitmire said prisoners are expected to make 25,000 facemasks by next week.
Texas state senator John Whitmire said prisoners are expected to make 25,000 facemasks by next week. (Texas State Sen. John Whitmire)

Texas prison inmates are making cotton face masks that will be given to first responders for free to alleviate a shortage of medical materials during the coronavirus pandemic, state Sen. John Whitmire said.

Prisoners in a unit at Gatesville Correctional Facility, a women's prison located about 120 miles south of Dallas, have been producing the masks for about a week and will continue for at least the next week, he said. They expect to produce about 25,000 masks, Whitmire said.

The masks are made from locally grown cotton, rather than synthetic material, so they aren't of the highest standards, he said.

"They're not the one you would want in an emergency room, but it sure beats nothing," Whitmire said.

The prison labor effort comes as top health care officials say there is not enough stockpiled medical protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves to fulfill the anticipated need of nation's health care system as it deals with coronavirus.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention said health care facilities may need to consider steps to ration face masks during the pandemic, even if those strategies "are not commensurate with U.S. standards of care." During shortages, the agency says health care providers should consider using masks beyond their designated shelf life and reusing them between multiple patients.

As a last resort, the agency said that health care providers could consider using "homemade masks" -- like bandanas or scarves -- to care for coronavirus patients, ideally in combination with a face shield.

Medical workers around the country have been sharing on social media their struggles to get appropriate medical gear using the hashtag #GetMePPE, which stands for personal protective equipment.

Whitmire said the idea to use prison labor to make masks came from the director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"(It was) good vision on their part and that of prison administrators," he said. "A lot of our prisons are self-sustaining. They make their own sheets and clothing. They had the system in place to do it, the cotton and the labor."

Whitmire said Texas may look at producing gowns next and are looking for a prototype.

Texas is one of just three states that does not pay prisoners for their labor, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that advocates against mass incarceration.

Texas is not the first state to use prison labor to fight coronavirus. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said two weeks ago that inmates were producing hand sanitizer for the state's use.

There are more than 30,000 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in the United States and 376 people have died, according to a CNN count of cases. Texas has 304 confirmed cases and five deaths, according to the state’s latest tally.