State prisons wisely using inmate labor to help during pandemic

  • 1 min to read
U-B logo

While social distancing is central to the battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it’s also essential that necessary medical supplies and equipment are manufactured so those who contract COVID-19 can receive proper care. But how? It’s going to take innovation and using resources in different ways.

Well, Washington state’s Department of Corrections is doing just that. It will soon be using inmate labor to produce protective gowns to help fill the nationwide shortage for this necessary medical supply.

The DOC’s Correctional Industries has developed an approved prototype and expects to start production in the coming days at its textiles shop located at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Franklin County. CI will then expand production to textiles shops at Airway Heights Corrections Center, Clallam Bay Corrections Center and Washington Corrections Center, DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said in a news release.

Guthrie wrote that it’s estimated Coyote Ridge can produce 2,100 gowns a day. The plan is to use 60 inmates at the prison in Connell to get the work started. Three DOC staff members will be needed to supervise.

Once the gown production gets up to full speed and expands to other prisons, it’s estimated 5,000 to 6,000 gowns per day will be produced by 160 inmates and a dozen DOC staff members, Gurthrie said.

DOC’s Emergency Operations Center will coordinate with the Washington State Emergency Operations Center on distribution of the gowns.

“I’m proud our (Correctional Industries) team can contribute to the COVID-19 response in such a meaningful way,” said Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair. “When we learned of the national shortage of protective gowns, CI sprang into action to develop a prototype to begin manufacturing these gowns. I’m proud of their ingenuity and quick action.”

Sinclair, a former superintendent at the Washington State Penitentiary here, should be proud of the employees at DOC. Using inmate labor in this crisis is brilliant. It is providing goods that we need and doing it quickly.

It’s not competing against the private sector as there are simply not enough production facilities to produce all the medical supplies needed.

In addition, it provides work for inmates that will prove beneficial for them — and society — in the long run.

Most inmates are going to be released from incarceration. Having job skills and life skills when they are released will help them land jobs that could help them stay out of trouble with the law.

Gurthrie said CI operates within all correctional facilities throughout Washington and trains approximately 2,400 incarcerated individuals.

What the Washington state Department of Corrections is doing could be a model for the rest of the nation to provide needed medical supplies for the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.