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Face mask production begins in Delaware prisons

Delaware News Desk
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

About three dozen Delaware prison inmates began sewing cotton face masks this week.

The skilled inmates are employed in Smyrna's James T. Vaughn Correctional Center garment shop. They usually make inmate uniforms, cutting and sewing material from large rolls of red and white cotton cloth. The clothing is worn by more than 4,200 inmates in Delaware Department of Correction prison facilities.

However, as the world confronts the coronavirus pandemic, the inmates and their correctional officer supervisors offered to produce the much-needed face masks. 

The masks will be distributed in the correctional system and to first responders.

The mask production effort was originally presented by Delaware Correctional Industries trades instructor Dion Hawkins, who worked collaboratively with fellow instructors Lori Quinney, Craig Devries, Lee Lepore, Frank Kulhanek and Brett Smith and their team of inmate workers. They designed and produced a prototype mask last week using two layers of cotton cloth already in stock, sewn together around a polyester filter designed to remove particles down to 3-10 microns in size.  

"We say often that ‘we are all in this together,’ and this initiative by correctional officers and offenders demonstrates that we all want to do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s a real-time, real-life demonstration of DOC’s dual mission of public safety and offender rehabilitation," said Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis.

Production began Monday, March 30, on two sewing machines, and by mid-week daily volume increased to nearly 100 face masks. Up to a dozen inmates will support the operation by cutting patterns and sorting and packing masks, while up to two dozen inmates will operate sewing machines to stitch the materials and add elastic ear loops. At full production capacity, the department estimates that it will be able to produce up to 500 face masks each week.

“As this serious situation evolves, we need to find innovative solutions for pressing issues. That is exactly what the Department of Correction has done by shifting the production within the James T. Vaughn Correction Center to provide greater protection to staff and inmates in DOC facilities. We’ll get through this, but we all need to pitch in and take this threat seriously,” said Governor John Carney.

Face masks produced at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center will be used in Delaware correctional facilities to protect staff, inmates and contractors. Once inventory increases, the masks will be offered to other first responders. The Department of Correction's infirmaries and isolation units will continue to use medical-grade, FDA-certified masks and other personal protective equipment produced by national manufacturers.

Hourly wages for inmate workers are set by state statute. Hourly pay rates for inmates employed in the garment shop at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ranges between $0.25 and $2 per hour, depending on skill level and length of service.