Iowa prison inmates make their own face masks to mitigate spread of COVID-19

Iowa Prison Industries is producing face masks for workers in the state and for inmates and correctional officers. (Photo by Iowa Department of Corrections)

Inmates in Iowa’s prisons are producing face masks and gowns to meet the state’s growing demands for protective equipment for workers who are required to continue working in public.

But the Iowa Department of Corrections is also working to produce enough masks for its own inmates and correctional officers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at its own facilities, said Cord Overton, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections.

The goal of the department is to produce three masks for every officer and inmate to rotate through since droplets can survive for 72 hours on surfaces. 

So far, every person in the prisons and residential facilities have received one mask. By Saturday, everyone will have two and by early next week, everyone will have three masks, Overton said.

Iowa Prison Industries is producing face masks for workers in the state and for inmates and correctional officers. (Photo by Iowa Department of Corrections)

The masks are being produced by Iowa Prison Industries, a work training program, and are not considered medical equipment. So far, they have been supplied to workers in the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Next week, the department will start sending masks, gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer to outside groups around the state, as determined by Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

As of April 7, inmates produced 25,652 masks, 3,139 gowns, 5,660 face shields and 7,148 gallons of hand sanitizer, Overton said.

The Iowa Department of Correction already enacted mitigation measures in its facilities last month, which activists say are potential hotspots for the virus to spread. 

The department planned to expedite the release of 700 inmates to create more room in the state’s nine prisons. They are also evaluating and quarantining new inmates.

ACLU of Iowa is calling for the state to limit arrests and release people being held on pretrial detention. Additionally, the organization is asking the governor to commute the sentences of inmates with medical conditions who are scheduled to be released in the next two years.

As of Friday, the prisons were 22% overcrowded, according to the department’s daily statistics.