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Florida inmates will start making masks. For now, only guards will get virus protection


As the number of positive coronavirus cases among inmates at Florida’s prisons continues to climb, some inmates who remain in good health are being assigned to make masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

But not for each other, at least not at first. The guards get dibs.

“I think it’s ironic that you would make the sick inmates make masks for the guards,” said one woman whose son is locked up at Blackwater River Correctional Facility near Pensacola, a private prison experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. “I’m just thankful that at this point my son is not sick.”

Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc., a St. Petersburg-based manufacturing company staffed by state prisoners, will be transitioning to making cloth face masks, the Florida Department of Corrections announced Saturday.

The masks produced by the company will be issued to correctional officers, probation officers and staff across the state. Then, the masks will be sent to facilities with large “at-risk” inmate populations, according to the FDC.

The move marks a shift in policy in the prison system, where inmates had not previously been allowed to cover their faces, according to families with loved ones in Florida prisons.

Some municipalities like Miami-Dade County are now requiring people to wear these masks in public places like grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested the broader public use masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s critical we take all precautions necessary to minimize the potential risk to the inmate population and staff charged with their care and custody,” said FDC Secretary Mark Inch in a statement.

As of Saturday night, there were 35 inmates and 44 employees statewide who have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirty-four of the sick inmates are at Blackwater, which is operated by The Geo Group.

Six Blackwater staffers are also sick, and inmates’ families have told the Miami Herald that they are not allowed to cover their faces, even with the front of their shirts.

After the Miami Herald highlighted the conditions at Blackwater, the prison’s warden met with a group of inmates and offered them masks, family members told the Herald. It’s unclear how many inmates received masks, but the family members said they were promised the masks would be distributed once a week.

A woman with a son at Blackwater said she’s scared her son and her friend, an older inmate, will get sick without immediate access to masks and gloves.

“They are locked down except for an hour,” she said. “That’s their only protective measure.”

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