Colorado prisoners are producing masks for use in prisons for less than $1 an hour

For less than a dollar an hour, Colorado prisoners are sewing more than 4,500 masks a day for Department of Corrections staff and inmates.

Inmates working through Colorado Correctional Industries started making the masks in late March, about a week before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the use of masks in everyday life. The masks were first distributed to staff and now are being given to prisoners, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams said at a virtual town hall Thursday.

By April 15, prisoners had produced 14,297 masks for corrections staff and 19,107 masks for inmates, according to the department. Staff received the masks first because they are the people traveling in and out of facilities every day and therefore more likely to transmit the virus, Williams said in an interview with The Denver Post. Corrections officers and other employees are now required to wear face coverings at work.

“The risk that we’re going to get it inside the walls is it getting introduced by well-meaning staff,” he said.

The masks are being produced through Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Department of Corrections that receives no state funding, according to its website. Prisoners in the jobs program produce office furniture, dorm beds, flags and license plates. Inmates also work in agriculture and on wildland firefighting crews. The goal is to teach prisoners work skills that will help them find a job after release.

The inmates making masks are paid $5 between $6 a day, depending on their experience and the number of masks they’re making, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Annie Skinner said. Williams acknowledged in an interview that the pay was “very small” though inmates were receiving bonus pay for making the masks.

Williams said during a virtual town hall Thursday that some of the inmate workers are happy to be making masks.

“They feel like they’re a part of something now,” he said.

Several state prison systems are using inmate labor to produce coronavirus essentials like hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment. Inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island jail are being paid $6 an hour to dig mass graves for the bodies of those who died of COVID-19.

On average, prisoners working in state-owned corrections industries earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour, according to a 2017 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. Inmate workers in some states are not paid at all.

Williams said Thursday that he will consider selling the masks to other states who are requesting them once Colorado’s needs are met.

During the Thursday town hall, Williams warned that the coming months will not be easy for the prison system. Three inmates have tested positive: two at the Sterling Correctional Facility and one at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex who transferred from the Denver jail. Eight staff members have tested positive and 160 Department of Corrections staff members were on quarantine status on Thursday.

“We know our challenges in many ways have just begun,” Williams said.

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