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Florida inmates will start making face masks for corrections officers

Tammi Woodall, who says her son-in-law is housed at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where inmates worried about the coronavirus caused a disturbance, protests outside the Washington state capitol April 11. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

As the nation’s jails and prisons become dangerous petri dishes for the novel coronavirus, the Florida Department of Corrections is asking inmates to make face masks.

At first, only the corrections officers will get to wear them.

The department announced Saturday that a clothing manufacturing contractor staffed by prison inmates, Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, will transition to making cloth face coverings according to federal health guidelines.

Corrections officers across the prison system are first priority. Probation officers will get face masks next. Later, prisons with higher “at-risk” inmate populations finally will get access to the protective gear, according to the statement. It’s unclear when that will happen, or how many inmates will benefit from the labor. Corrections department representatives couldn’t immediately be reached for comment late Sunday.

“It’s critical we take all precautions necessary to minimize the potential risk to the inmate population and staff charged with their care and custody,” Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement.

The announcement comes as prisoners nationwide have been demanding better protection from the deadly virus while powerless to help themselves avoid it. From manufacturing hand sanitizer to protective gear, inmates in various states and at the federal level have been called on to provide essential supplies amid the pandemic as serious questions remain about their health and safety in close quarters.

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons has committed to giving every prisoner and staff member a face mask while releasing or isolating as many inmates as possible, BOP chief Michael Carvajal told CNN on Saturday.

In Florida, the first widespread outbreak came to light last week at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, which is operated privately by GEO Group, but Florida prison authorities still supply the inmates, as the Miami Herald reported. There, 34 inmates and six staff members have tested positive, accounting for half of all cases across the prison system as of Sunday, according to data from the Florida Department of Corrections.

According to the CDC and World Health Organization, only the sick, and their caretakers, should wear face masks. Research scientist Jeremy Howard disagrees. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a letter to families of inmates last week, Inch acknowledged the serious problem of trying to practice social distancing in prisons.

As for masks, he said “we have ordered and are already receiving cloth face coverings for all staff and inmates. I will start issuing the coverings first to staff,” he added, “because they are the greater risk to your loved ones. But over the next two weeks, we hope to have all our staff and your loved ones in cloth face coverings.”

One mother of an inmate at the prison told The Washington Post her son and fellow inmates have been desperate for face masks and are now leaving their cells only for an hour a day to avoid infection. (The mother, Linda, asked that only her first name be used out of fear her son will face retaliation.) She told her son, 36, to consider tying his shirt around his face, covering up with “whatever he can find."

“He said, sometimes, to be honest with you, Mom, I’m afraid to even go take a shower,” Linda recounted.

He told her he is afraid to leave the prison to attend his brother’s funeral.

Earlier this month, Linda said, her 27-year-old son died while in solitary confinement at Sumter Correctional Institution, where there are three confirmed coronavirus cases. She said she does not believe her younger son’s death was related to the virus but is awaiting autopsy results to understand what happened to him. She had organized a private memorial service — but her older son at Blackwater River Correctional Facility said he was too nervous to leave the prison and return, afraid he may end up exposed to the virus if housed somewhere else.

He told her he “wanted to be left alone, where I feel like I stand a chance.” He has only a few months to go on his 20-month sentence for fleeing the police, as a habitual driving-without-a-license offender. Linda said she is petitioning the state to let him go home early for good — decisions that many state and local criminal justice officials are weighing to ease the burden on crowded facilities.

“It’s spreading really bad in there,” she said. “I pray so hard for my son who’s in there now. … They definitely need to be protected.”

Elsewhere, inmates have rioted in protest of their conditions. In Kansas last week, after eight prisoners tested positive for the virus at Lansing Correctional Facility, 20 to 30 men smashed windows and computers and lights, the Kansas City Star reported.

In Washington state last Wednesday, after six inmates tested positive at the Monroe Correctional Complex, more than 100 prisoners walked out of their cells as part of a demonstration, before about 50 grew unruly and set off fire extinguishers, KUOW reported.

Parents of inmates told a news station their sons were angry they were not allowed to wear face masks they had tried to make themselves and were worried about the lack of social distancing within the prison, as KUOW reported. Some parents protested outside the prison Monday.

One parent, identified only as Suzy, told KOMO she understood why prisons may have policies against inmates wearing masks but that at this point, there was “literally no protection for them.” “They’re breathing the same air — they’re not being able to social distance,” she said.

The state’s head of the corrections department, Steve Sinclair, told KUOW after the riot efforts were underway to give all inmates and staff face masks.