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Inmates volunteer to make masks for first responders

Inmates in Santa Barbara County Jail share what it's like to be in jail during a pandemic. Some are using their time to make PPE for first responders.

Posted: Apr 30, 2020 8:49 AM


When health officials sounded the alarm on the state of the country's personal protective equipment stockpile, officials at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department were concerned.

It was mid-March, and coronavirus cases were already surging across the country, including in California. The department knew the best solution was to find an alternative way to source PPE for its first responders and frontline workers.

The question was how?

Meanwhile, at the Santa Barbara County Jail, a group of inmates were also concerned about the pandemic. Twenty two of them decided to approach Deirdre Smith, inmate services manager at the jail, and express their interest in doing something to help their community fight the spread of the virus.

Before Smith was able to come up with a way herself, Santa Barbara County officials reached out to her, she said, expressing a need for help making face shields and masks from scratch.

Smith said it was a natural match.

"They are not only helping themselves, but they're helping their fellow inmates, as well as thousands of people in the community," Smith told CNN.

Since it's virtually impossible to social distance in the jail, the men in their cellblock aren't required to wear masks around each other -- instead, there are strict protocols for those who come into jail, which are very few at this point.

So far, the inmates have made 3,200 face shields, and prepared 6,000 yards of cloth to be made into masks. The jail doesn't have the sewing equipment to finish masks, but the group hands off the cut fabric to volunteers on the outside who take it from there. As a result, they have received back 900 masks, one for each inmate in the jail, Smith said. In May, they aim to make 10,000 masks.

Prisons across the country, many of which have experienced multiple deadly coronavirus outbreaks, have forced inmates to work on sewing masks and face shields.

But that's not the case at Santa Barbara County Jail. Only one person tested positive in a population of approximately 1,000, Smith said. And the group of inmates who are volunteering said they are eager to help.

Raquel Zick, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, said deputies are grateful to the inmates for their help.

"That equipment is very difficult for us to source," she told CNN. "Which is why it was really great that we had the inmates volunteer to help provide that equipment and help fill that void."

Experiencing a pandemic while in jail

Scared. Anxious. Helpless.

These are feelings familiar to so many in the time of coronavirus, including 16 inmates CNN spoke to at the Santa Barbara County Jail.

"There were times where we didn't know what to expect, it's that uncertainty, that fear of the unknown that -- kind of like in the past led me to make a some poor decisions," Roy Duran Jr., 38, an inmate at the jail, told CNN.

But Duran said being able to give back to the community in such a hands-on way has helped him navigate those feelings.

It "gave us a sense of power, and control over the spread of this virus, and we're able to do something to give back, to help people, to save lives," Duran said.

Zick, the Sheriff's Department PIO, said she believes the volunteer work has helped inmates "regain one of the freedoms they lose when they find themselves in custody."

"Oftentimes we think about the freedoms as being able to celebrate birthdays, or other fun things, but when there's crises, the ability to be part of the solution is also restricted when you're confined."

How giving back has impacted inmates

The volunteer work has also helped change people's perception of inmates, some inmates who CNN spoke to said.

Mark Montoya, a 43-year-old inmate, said he feels that the relationship between deputies and inmates has changed for the better.

"It's empowering for us to wake up at 6 in the morning, to be drinking our coffee and for them to give us a thumbs up," Montoya said.

The group of volunteers echoed Montoya, and added that it also feels empowering to know they're the ones who changed that dynamic.

"I'm not only helping you, they, them," said Dion Frederick, a 28-year-old inmate, pointing around the room and out into the hallways. "I'm also helping my group of guys here have a better relationship with staff members, like the sheriff's deputies that take care of us."

"I had this us-against-them mentality, and the masks that we're making are for the deputies, they're for the personnel who work out here," Frederick said. "So being able to bridge that gap is something that's phenomenal but it also empowers us."

Giving back to the community has also helped some inmates value themselves more, they said.

De'Vosia Harper, a 19-year-old inmate, said that the idea that one of his masks could save a life was almost unbelievable.

"It made me feel like a superhero, it made me feel like that was a miracle," he said.

Harper said he realized the power of the operation once he saw the almost 900 face shields the group made in one day.

"I was in awe, I thought we'd be able to make, like, 30."

Before their volunteer work began, the group of inmates had been meeting to deconstruct concepts of toxic masculinity, in workshops led by Duran.

When the virus reached the US, they felt compelled to help. Last week, Duran said the group discussed how living with integrity could add to their values and make them better people.

"We're human beings who've made some very poor choices, and I'm not trying to negate that in any way," he said. "But the message that I want to send is that we're redeemable, that there's still hope."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 498560

Reported Deaths: 9939
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34150535
DeSoto31916399
Hinds31878624
Jackson24352379
Rankin21928388
Lee15450235
Madison14547279
Jones13789241
Forrest13428250
Lauderdale11944315
Lowndes10966185
Lamar10491135
Pearl River9454237
Lafayette8462138
Hancock7703126
Washington7371157
Oktibbeha7118130
Monroe6740174
Warren6656176
Pontotoc6620102
Neshoba6613206
Panola6466131
Marshall6398132
Bolivar6268146
Union596794
Pike5794152
Alcorn5646101
Lincoln5421134
George494979
Scott471198
Tippah466081
Prentiss464881
Leflore4631144
Itawamba4605105
Adams4577119
Tate4553109
Copiah445692
Simpson4423116
Yazoo440386
Wayne438572
Covington427894
Marion4222107
Sunflower4217104
Coahoma4127104
Leake407687
Newton381079
Grenada3700108
Stone358764
Tishomingo358091
Attala330589
Jasper328565
Winston313491
Clay306775
Chickasaw297867
Clarke290694
Calhoun278145
Holmes267287
Smith262450
Yalobusha232847
Tallahatchie225851
Walthall217763
Greene216048
Lawrence211440
Perry204855
Amite204055
Webster201845
Noxubee185940
Montgomery179356
Jefferson Davis170942
Carroll168238
Tunica159039
Benton147538
Kemper141341
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131637
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106328
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 814363

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1141131910
Mobile722941323
Madison52048686
Shelby37315341
Baldwin37098540
Tuscaloosa34973599
Montgomery33996725
Lee23158240
Calhoun22168470
Morgan20675372
Etowah19770496
Marshall18258300
Houston17314405
St. Clair15924337
Cullman15333290
Limestone15239198
Elmore15095284
Lauderdale14163294
Talladega13728272
DeKalb12575259
Walker11096366
Blount10104174
Autauga9904146
Jackson9795180
Coffee9182189
Dale8866181
Colbert8794200
Tallapoosa7045195
Escambia6747127
Covington6688179
Chilton6595160
Russell626358
Franklin5936105
Chambers5562142
Marion4960126
Dallas4897199
Clarke473482
Pike4721105
Geneva4564126
Winston4478101
Lawrence4269117
Bibb421786
Barbour356075
Marengo334189
Monroe330662
Randolph327763
Butler324894
Pickens314082
Henry311265
Hale309487
Cherokee300557
Fayette291079
Washington251151
Cleburne247058
Crenshaw243775
Clay240867
Macon230762
Lamar218146
Conecuh185752
Coosa179038
Lowndes174161
Wilcox167838
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131138
Greene125844
Choctaw87027
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