Hampden County Jail Inmates Making Face Masks, Medical Gowns For Local Use
Inmates at correctional institutions across the country are producing face masks and other protective equipment to combat the coronavirus pandemic. There is a PPE production program at a county jail in western Massachusetts.
York Street Industries, the corrections industry of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, has produced more than 67,000 face masks, hundreds of face shields, and recently began to make medical gowns.
Located inside the Hampden County House of Corrections in Ludlow, the vocational training program already had sewing machines for fabricating uniforms and stitching upholstery, so the shift to PPE production just made sense, said Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi.
"That idea came very early with COVID when everyone tried to get a stockpile of masks and within a week you could not get any," said Cocchi. " We have to be self-sufficient and the offenders stepping up and wanting to be part of the solution was just moving."
At first, the face masks were used in-house for inmates and given to their family members. Masks have now been donated to every sheriff’s department in Massachusetts, to local first responders, medical agencies, and other essential businesses.
The masks have the durability to be washed and reused. The gowns that are being produced are being sold to hospitals.
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal toured the program Wednesday and addressed some of the inmates.
"It is about humanity and the role you are playing here is really really important," said Neal.
The Democrat, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, later called the initiative “inspiring.”
"There are many dimensions to American life and a second chance is part of it," said Neal. "What they've done is embrace that great sense of optimism and if you use your time here correctly you can gain reentry with a skill set."
Amid the current outcry nationally for policing reforms, prison labor has become a hot button issue. An online petition calling for an end to forced prison labor has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Critics of prison work programs say inmates are being exploited in what amounts to little more than slave labor.
Cocchi said such criticism misses the mark when it comes to the work programs at the Ludlow jail.
"When we have these programs that allow people to work and gain a skill that is not slave labor," said Cocchi. "We are giving people the powerful tool of self-promotion. That is how we look at it."
Officials at the jail stress the work program gives inmates, who volunteer, an opportunity to learn skills that can help them land a job after they are released. In addition to sewing fabrics, there is woodworking, welding, and a print shop.
The industries program has 49 current participants with 72 on a waiting list, according to a jail spokesman.
The inmates are paid a stipend of $.50 -$1.00 per hour.
Officials said sales bring in about $2.5 million annually and that money is all put back into the program.