Iowa inmates earn $1.15 per hour producing COVID-19 supplies
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — One of Iowa’s most reliable sources of personal protective equipment to fight the coronavirus has been a statewide prison labor program that can pay inmates as little as 58 cents per hour.
Prisoners across the state have helped make 98,000 masks, 40,000 gowns, 17,000 face shields and 24,000 gallons of hand sanitizer in recent weeks, the Iowa Department of Corrections says.
Inmates and staff at several prisons have been working weekends and nights, including 12 hours on Easter Sunday, to produce the supplies, which are being used to protect themselves, the guards, state employees and health care workers.
Female inmates at the prison in Mitchellville have made hand sanitizer. Male inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility have made masks and gowns. Their counterparts in Anamosa have made face shields.
In all, more than 250 inmates and staff members have been involved in producing PPE while others have picked up extra duties, said Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton.
The supplies have gone to staff and inmates at prisons and other corrections offices, Department of Human Services institutions, the Iowa Veterans Home, several state agencies and to the State Emergency Operations Center for distribution statewide.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has called the effort a success at a time when the state has faced a critical shortage of personal protective equipment. The state has been working to rebuild its stockpile after tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley recently praised the program on the Senate floor.
“These inmates are providing an essential public service and for that they deserve our appreciation,” he said on May 13. “It’s an important contribution that I hope they will long remember and that will help them be productive members of society when they finish their sentence.”
Iowa Prison Industries pays its employees between 58 cents and $1.92 per hour, with an average earning of $1.15, Overton said. Typically, one-quarter to one-half of their wages are automatically diverted from their paychecks to pay outstanding court debts. Take home weekly pay for an inmate working 40 hours might be around $30.
Inmates have been making other products to help Iowa institutions fight the coronavirus, including hand sanitizer dispensers, cleaning supplies and social distancing signs. Government agencies, schools, and nonprofits can purchase those online but sales figures are not yet available.
Participation in the program is voluntary, but many incarcerated employees have long complained that their wages are too low and their phone calls, emails and goods cost too much, said inmate advocate Jean Basinger of Des Moines.
“Some inmates feel that it’s modern-day slavery,” said Basinger, who added that others believe it’s fair for the state to dock their pay to cover room and board. It cost taxpayers about $33,000 to house each inmate last year, or about $90 per day, a department report shows.
Basinger said inmates have largely been pleased with the state’s handling of the coronavirus. While visitors have been banned since March, inmates have been granted four free emails and one free phone call per week.
Inmates have each been issued three masks, and videos have been playing in prisons describing their importance and how to clean them, Overton said. Those transferring in from jails are placed in isolation for two weeks to minimize the risk of introducing the virus.
Only 23 of Iowa’s 7,700 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, but extensive testing has been done only at the prisons in Oakdale and Clarinda.