Work hasn’t stopped for Byron Ewing during the coronavirus outbreak — if anything, it’s more intense.
As an inmate at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Ewing works about 10 hours a day, pouring metal drums of chemicals into a massive mixer. At the end of the assembly line, his fellow inmates bottle the finished product: hand sanitizer.
As the outbreak continues to worsen, Missouri prison factory workers have begun producing a variety of supplies, from protective masks to medical gowns. The Missouri Department of Corrections has said it plans to distribute certain items to inmates and staff, but criminal justice advocates argue the factories are putting workers at risk.
“I feel like we’re making a big impact,” said Ewing, who makes about 71 cents an hour in the factory. “We might be saving somebody's life with the stuff we're making. Because it’s pretty bad out there now.”
The Missouri DOC operates prison factories inside a dozen correctional institutions through its Missouri Vocational Enterprises program. The factory at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, which employs about 30 inmates, typically makes cleaning supplies, like soap and floor wax.
But in late March, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration temporarily relaxed its standards for producing hand sanitizer, the factory shifted its focus.
Before they could start producing hand sanitizer in large quantities, the factory had to install ventilation and other safety equipment, said factory manager David Mallow.
“We're nervous,” Mallow said. “This is a highly flammable material that we're dealing with. I’m worried about my workers. I think this is probably the most mentally drained I’ve been in my career.”
Sourcing the alcohol and other raw materials has also been a challenge. In the past few weeks, Mallow said, the price of some items has quadrupled. Still, the factory has been able to make about 1,100 gallons of sanitizer per day — which will be sold to state government agencies.
Meanwhile, inmates are sewing thousands of face masks in textile factories at state prisons in Chillicothe, Farmington, Jefferson City and Vandalia.
The goal is to distribute two masks to each of the more than 28,000 inmates, as well as staff members, said Missouri Department of Corrections spokesperson Karen Pojmann via email. Another 1,100 will be sent to the Missouri General Assembly.
But some criminal justice watchdog groups have criticized the Missouri Department of Corrections for continuing to operate prison factories during the coronavirus outbreak.
Amy Breihan, Missouri director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said the department is “taking advantage of prison labor” and putting inmates at risk.
At least one staff member with Missouri Vocational Enterprises in Jefferson City has tested positive for COVID-19, she added, underscoring the urgency of the issue.
“Inmates are working in close quarters with other people, shoulder to shoulder in some instances, which heightens their risk of exposure,” Breihan said. “It’s a cruel irony that they’re making many materials they’re not allowed to use, and they’re doing it for pennies on the dollar.”
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