They don’t get to use the sanitizer, the women say, only make it. They say they don’t wear masks even though they sit across from one another, face to face. They’ve been told that if a spark were to ignite, the high alcohol content of the sanitizer would lead to a fast, deadly fire. They say they fear that by making products to help other people be safer, they are more likely to get sick themselves.
“We are given no choice. If we refuse to come into the factory, we are threatened with disciplinary action,” said Sandra Brown, one of five women who described being compelled to work on the production line for $4 a day. “We do not have masks, nor do the staff or visitors. It’s as if our lives don’t matter.”
With inconsistent access to soap and disinfectant and social distancing difficult to maintain, American prisons are becoming incubators for the coronavirus. Thousands of inmates are getting sick, and guards are spreading the virus back out to the larger community. This week, a single Ohio prison has become a top hot spot in the country, with 1,950 inmates — 78 percent of the prison population — testing positive for the virus.
But even as detention centers suspend visits and confine hundreds of thousands to their cells to try to slow transmission, inmates across the country are also going to work, whether they want to or not. Prisons have begun shifting to become pandemic supply chains, with nearly every state drafting inmates into their response to the virus despite warning from public health experts that these are the last people who should be put on production lines right now.
“That is a recipe for disaster,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. Yamey said anything that increases transmission in detention centers represents a serious public health threat because the virus will not stay contained to just prisoners. “They are already more vulnerable because of prison conditions, and now we are compelling them to put themselves at even higher risk.”
A spokesman for the New York corrections department disputed that, saying that inmates are being adequately protected, that anyone who doesn’t want to bottle hand sanitizer can opt out of the work program, and that the department recently installed a sanitizer dispenser in each prison housing block.
At the national level, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said the agency is “grateful” to inmates for working in factories during the crisis, adding that, “They are regularly monitored for symptoms, and doing their work in safe environments that are routinely sanitized.”
As long as there have been prisons in the United States, prisoners have been made to work for low or no wages as part of their punishment. Under normal circumstances, about half of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners hold some kind of job, and a subset of these — about 63,000 inmates — work in what is known as prison industries, producing goods for outside customers, often government agencies.
Each state oversees its own industry initiative, and the federal system runs a separate program, Federal Prison Industries, which employs some 17,000 prisoners and draws $650 million in revenue each year. Inmates are sometimes contracted out to private companies, but most work in warehouses within their prison complexes. Behind the automatically locking doors and layers of razor-wire fences, these plants look like typical factories, with workers hunching over grinding machines to make prescription lenses or assembling wooden desks while listening to the radio.
In the past month, many of these programs have been transformed in response to the virus, sometimes in ways that put prison workers at increased risk of exposure. In Florida, inmates are sewing masks for prison guards but do not yet have masks themselves. In Arizona, 140 inmates have been sent to live at an egg farm so they can continue working despite a prison lockdown to prevent the virus from getting in. Inmates in Louisiana continued to work at a chicken plant even after a civilian worker there fell sick, and were only allowed to stop going once two inmate workers also tested positive for the virus. In Connecticut, prisoners who used to make license plates and plastic bags are now making face shields for 30 cents an hour. In Texas, prisoners are working 12-hour shifts making cotton masks for no pay at all. The highest pay —$6 an hour — was offered to inmates on New York’s Rikers Island to dig mass graves for covid-19 victims.
The virus has hit federal prisons especially hard, with at least 23 inmates dying and more than 800 inmates and guards falling sick. This month, the Bureau of Prisons took the rare step of imposing a nationwide lockdown, with all 146,000 inmates ordered to stay in their cells. Guards assumed the quarantine measures would also mean a halt to work at the dozens of factories attached to federal prisons.
“Honestly, we were relieved,” said Kareen Troitino, a correctional worker who is also head of the union at a federal prison in Miami. But then word came from Federal Prison Industries that some factories would remain open to fulfill contracts with the military. The Defense Department “has been pushing back on our shutdown plans,” Federal Prison Industries CEO Patrick O’Connor wrote in a memo to regional prison directors.
So in Miami, 100 inmates continue to take their places around cutting stations and conveyor belts to make camouflage coats. “There’s no social distancing. It’s like what you see when you have a big exposé at some sweatshop in China,” Troitino said. “We’re being made to keep producing these military jackets, which are not necessary at this moment. It’s just pure greed.”
Guards at six other prison factories that have stayed open to make military supplies raised the same concerns: The production lines are putting everyone in the prison, from inmates to staff, at risk. “Mandating staff to work on nonessential items during a time like this does not seem right at all. It undermines the whole quarantine,” said James Simmerman, a correctional officer and union president at the federal prison in Englewood, Colo.
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Sue Allison said that while some inmates are continuing to make military supplies to honor existing contracts, most have switched to making personal protective equipment because of the growing need among first responders. She added that the industry program is voluntary, and inmate workers are social distancing when possible.
The first federal inmate to die of covid-19 was a worker at a prison textile factory. Serving a sentence for a nonviolent drug charge, he died at the end of March at a hospital near the Oakdale federal prison in rural Louisiana. Then another Oakdale inmate, who served meals to factory workers, started coughing up blood and later died.
Ray Hatton, an inmate who worked with both of the men and says he used his earnings to buy things like soap so he could wash his hands, estimates that a quarter of Oakdale factory workers are now quarantined in isolation units. “They should test all of us, but they won’t, because they don’t want to know we all have it,” he said. Hatton, who has two years left on a sentence for possession of child pornography, said that he himself has developed a persistent cough and feels as if he might pass out in the showers he has been taking to lower his fever.
The worst of the outbreak in the national system is now centered at a medium-security prison in Butner, N.C., which has seen five deaths in two weeks and is reporting one of the highest infection rates of any federal prison. Even so, inmates are still walking a quarter-mile from their dorms to the prison’s textile plant, where they sit at sewing machines arranged a few feet apart like rows of desks in a schoolroom. The workers have switched from making blankets to manufacturing cloth masks and gowns.
“Everyone feels good about making the PPE to help,” inmate Chris Whitaker said, “but at the same time, they’re scared to death.” Whitaker, who has 10 month left on a sentence for selling guns, said that he had to move out of his dorm because it is being repurposed as an overflow infirmary, but he continues to report to his job at 7:30 a.m., seven days a week, even after a guard at the factory fell sick with covid-19. He makes $1.25 an hour and said he needs the money to call his two daughters now that in-person visiting has been suspended amid the lockdown. “Am I scared of working? Yeah,” he said. “If I could quit, I would, but to me that’s not an option.”
The fears that inmates describe across the country have grown especially acute at Shawangunk prison in New York after workers witnessed a 49-year-old prisoner who had been working 12-hour shifts labeling sanitizer bottles collapse and die in the production warehouse earlier this month. The New York corrections department confirmed that the worker died during his shift but said the cause was not covid-19.
Following that death, prison officials say they told hand sanitizer workers they could take some time off. “It was implied that we were working too many hours, perhaps putting stress on ourselves,” inmate Christopher Martinez said. He was rattled, but decided to keep working even after he started feeling sick himself because he needed the money for calls home. The bottling line pays double the going rate for a prison job, plus a 100 percent hazard pay bonus, for a total of 76 cents an hour.
Martinez, who was convicted of second-degree murder when he was 19, said he was not sure if he was feeling off because of the alcohol fumes or the virus. “Last night I felt like my breathing wasn’t normal, like my blood pressure was too low, irregular heartbeat and lightheadedness,” he said, describing his symptoms.
He kept working up until a nurse evaluated him last week for covid-19 symptoms. He was taken off the line and put on quarantine in his cell for the rest of the month.
Martinez said seven men in his housing unit have now tested positive for the virus.
“At night, when the lights are turned off and silence begins to settle in, I hear the coughs near and in the distance. It makes me wonder if today is the day my fate will be sealed,” he said. “I guess the irony is that people are being asked to care for others when they are not cared for themselves. I’m being forced to make calculated risks in a crisis, and I just don’t think I am capable.”