By Courtney Spinelli

FORT DODGE, Iowa (KWQC) – As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the need for personal protective equipment still remains a high priority. 

Inmates in Iowa’s state prisons are working to help contribute to the supply of PPE.

Iowa Prison Industries (IPI) provides work training to men and women incarcerated at Iowa’s state prisons.

Cord Overton, Communications Director for the Iowa Department of Corrections said of the IPI, “it’s an entity that exists to try to help rehabilitate through training for jobs.” 

“It’s a lot of neat ways inmates are able to learn job skills, earn a little bit of an allowance too while they’re incarcerated, and then we’re also helping serve nonprofits through the works of their labor,” said Overton.

According to IPI, of the over 8,000 inmates at Iowa’s prisons, over 95 percent will eventually leave prison and return to society.

IPI plays a role in the reentry process by providing offenders occupational skills training and soft skills enhancement while they’re incarcerated.

Overton said, “it’s at every one of our prisons across the state. What they’re normally doing is building furniture, they’re doing braille translations, they’re doing metalwork, and they can sell any of their products or services to nonprofits across the state.”

“Schools often buy their desks through Iowa Prison Industries. They’re assembled by inmates in the prison system,” said Overton.

“This in our nine facilities across the system, they’re all kind of specializing in different areas,” he said of the program.

IPI is 100 percent self-funded, with zero dollars appropriated by the legislature. According to IPI, revenue from the sale of products pays for cost of operation, including civilian salaries, offender allowances, raw materials and equipment.

With the new coronavirus pandemic, Overton said IPI has shifted production or added production capacity to help address the shortage of PPE in the state of Iowa.

IPI is distributing PPE to Iowa’s Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Human Services (DHS), with the rest going to the State’s stockpile, which will be distributed to medical facilities across the state.

Overton said,  “what we’ve done during the COVID 19 crisis is sort of really re-vamp a lot of their production lines to focus on this highly needed PPE that a lot of entities around the state of Iowa have also been working on, but because of the ability of IPI to produce things on a pretty large scale, we’ve been able to put out some pretty impressive numbers – I think – when it comes to the products they’re producing.”

Overton said each facility’s IPI program has “its own niche.”

Anamosa offers specialized trade, with harder trade skills being performed like license plate production, production of desks to be used in schools across the state, and a lot of the woodworking production.

Now, its IPI inmates have stepped up to help with many things, among those, creating face shields to be used.

At the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, Overton said its inmates hone skills like textiles and chemical work. They have now produced more than 16,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to date during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fort Dodge IPI inmates specialize, according to Overton, in textiles production. 

Overton said the IPI inmates at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility are normally helping with textile production, including the creation of uniforms, whether it be for police officers, firefighters, or safety and work clothing, they have shifted their production to help meet the demand for PPE.

They have created over 10,000 gowns, which Overton said, “they’re in high demand at nursing homes and nursing facilities. We have just sent about 4,000 of these to the Veteran’s home out by Marshalltown.”

IPI’s Fort Dodge Textiles shop has also produced gown sewing kits, said Overton He said it has been helpful for people who may not have the supplies to sew a gown, but want to help contribute in creating them.

Overton said the kits were distributed through working with Iowa Central Community College to help boost supply. Overton said community members can pick up the kits, sew a gown, and then return it to ICCC, where it will be laundered and then sent out to medical facilities.

To date, over 60,000 masks have been created by IPI inmates.

Every inmate and staff member has been given three masks. The masks provided to staff are an ‘Olson-style’ mask, which can be washed for re-use.

Overton said, “With about 2,500 employees that we have, only about half are correctional officers. The other half are those counselors, medical folks, administration, and more. There’s a lot of diverse jobs in the correctional system.”

“All of those folks that live in residential facilities out in the communities, they’re technically not under the supervision of the Department of the Corrections, they’re under community-based corrections, but they’re a part of our system and they’re our partners. So we made sure all of those folks that are living in those facilities have three masks, and all of their staff have three masks so they have that extra layer of protection,” said Overton.

“We know when two individuals are wearing a mask it really decreases the likelihood of a spread,” said Overton, “so we know those who need it are getting it and now we’ve been turning our attention to the jails to let them know if they need them, we’ll get them out to them.”

IPI said they plan to continue production as long as the needs for the PPE and supplies are available.  

According to IPI’s website, “facilities interested in receiving hand sanitizer, gowns, masks, or face shields, can make requests to their county Emergency Management office.”

https://www.kwqc.com/content/news/Inmates-at-Iowas-state-prisons-helping-create-PPE–570032551.html