Maine prison inmates have been working long hours to supply organizations and state agencies with cloth masks and other non-medical personal protective equipment in the response to COVID-19.
Correctional facilities shifted their traditional industries programs to the production of masks, plastic face shields, and other PPE in early March. Once enough was made for the Department of Corrections’ needs they began giving supplies to homeless shelters, day centers, residential programs, nonprofits, county jails, and state agencies at no cost.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is among the recipients of inmate-made PPE.
“The (DOC) has been part of the state’s COVID-19 planning, preparedness, and response team since before the first case was identified in Maine,” Maine CDC representative Robert Long said in an email. “We are extremely grateful for that collaboration.”
Much of the supply has gone to Maine CDC regional stockpiles, and from there it is distributed through a statewide request process.
In addition, the CDC is relying on the DOC exclusively for its fit-testing hoods, which are used to test the fit of N95 masks for medical use and have been in critically short supply nationally.
Long said the DOC received almost 250 fit-testing hoods by mid-July, and they are “extremely well made and much better quality than the majority of commercially available products.”
Inmates are now working on child-sized cloth face masks to supplement a supply that the state’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness team has provided to the Maine Department of Education for use by schools when in-classroom instruction resumes.
The DOC also supplied masks to the Office of Child and Family Services. Department of Health and Human Services representative Jackie Farwell said the agency was able to provide two masks to every adult and child in foster families at no cost to the families or the office.
Halfway through July, Maine State Prison’s industries team was closing in on 100,000 cloth masks produced.
“On average we can do 1,000 to 1,200 masks a day,” Ken Lindsey, the prison’s industry manager, said. “When we first started we were going seven days a week, from seven in the morning until eight o’clock at night.”
He said the project started with eight men and six sewing machines and has since expanded to 16 machines and 23 workers. Regular industries workers make $1-$3.75 per hour, while some upholstery shop workers make the prevailing wage for work done for a private company, according to a 2019 pay scale document obtained through a Maine Freedom of Access Act request.
Despite the long hours, there is competition for jobs. Participants were initially chosen based on demonstrated work ethic, sewing experience, problem-solving skills, and dependability. Now workers are added based on seniority in the industries program.
“They’re very proud to give back to the community,” Lindsey said. “Of course, it’s a correctional facility, so it’s a negative environment. They try to make it positive and are happy to come to work each day. They work hard and take pride in their work.”
Early in the progression of the pandemic, DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty and the central office team started discussions about the possibility of using industries programs to make masks, recognizing their importance in controlling the spread of the virus in their facilities.
Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell said there was an early recognition that PPE would be critically important to the department. “As we were trying to bolster our own internal supply … it became crystal clear to us that we needed to do something on our own, because we could not rely on suppliers, purchasing and other things nationally,” he said.
Lindsey, at the Warren prison, was in communication with the National Corrections Industries Association on a daily basis in early March, sharing information and ideas with prison industries programs in other states. They brainstormed about design, process, and how to get materials like fabric and elastic when everything from traditional vendors was back-ordered for months.
The prison upholstery shop makes inmate uniforms, so workers made do with fabric and elastics they had on hand, cut into four thin strips for use as mask elastics. They are now buying fabric from Maine retailer Marden’s, which also donated colorful swatches that are used for making children’s masks.
The department devoted its own resources to the project, purchasing materials and new sewing machines for the different industries teams out of various industries accounts. As of July 23, the department had spent more than $102,000 on supplies, materials, and inmate labor to produce PPE.
Now the DOC is seeking reimbursement for some of this expense through federal COVID-19 response funds. Thornell said they have been submitting an accounting of expenditures related to the pandemic to the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services each week for reimbursement and received the first reimbursement check last month.
“It’s not a drain on our internal budgets and it’s not a drain on state of Maine taxpayer money,” he said.
While the teams at MSP and the Women’s Center at Maine Correctional Center in Windham produce masks, Mountain View Correctional facility specializes in face shields, and the men’s side of the Maine Correctional Center has been making the fit-testing hoods and reusable gowns.
Having a specialty gives purpose to the teams, Thornell said, since most of the regular industries operations have been shut down due to the pandemic.
At the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Trade Shop Supervisor Mark Welch-Thompson said a three-person team has so far made 9,500 masks.
Inmate Mackenzie Kelley works in the small shop. She came up with a mask design by combining three patterns she found online and then trained the other workers to make them.
Now they work in a production line: one woman cutting the material and elastic, and two sewing. Kelly folds and sews the pleats into all the masks herself, without the added step of marking and pinning them, to keep up their speed.
Some of the regular trade shop work – laundry for the facility and embroidery work for the state – has continued through the pandemic. When the women working those jobs are done for the day, they all help snip threads off the finished masks.
Welch-Thompson said they are keeping one of each mask they make with different fabrics and will create something with them to commemorate their work.
Kelley, who is serving time for drug trafficking, said that although she is only making 80 cents per hour, she feels lucky to have a paying job when most inmate positions are not paid, and when so many people have lost work because of the pandemic.
Learning to operate the industrial sewing machines has also given her a marketable skill that she says she hopes will help make her look better to a prospective employer when she gets out.
“We might not make a lot but at least it’s something,” Kelley said. “It keeps me busy and it’s rewarding work. When we started out, we were making (masks) for homeless adults. It’s one of those things where they probably don’t have access to those sorts of things and we’re providing that for them. It’s nice to kind of give back.”
Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.