NC inmates helping protect prison staff from coronavirus

Posted May 13, 2020 8:06 p.m. EDT

 — Prisons have been a hotspot in North Carolina for coronavirus cases, but the inmates themselves are now engaged in the fight against the pandemic.

The virus has infected nearly 650 inmates at North Carolina prisons, killing five of them. The state Department of Public Safety doesn't disclose how many prison workers have tested positive for the virus.

"This is a very uncertain and trying time, not just for our agency but the world as a whole," DPS Deputy Director Anthony Vann said.

Correction Enterprises, which provides jobs to 2,200 inmates statewide, usually produces items from furniture to eyeglass frames to signs. But some production lines have recently shifted to making masks and other protective gear for inmates and prison workers to limit the spread of the virus behind bars.

"They're very creative, very innovative individuals," Vann said. "We've done over 200,000 masks in the past six weeks."

The masks have been distributed throughout the state prison system, so every staff member has one and every inmate has two – in case one is in the laundry. About 20,000 masks were donated to the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association to be distributed to the staff and inmates in county jails, and some also were distributed to the staff and youth in the state juvenile justice system.

"We've also created ready-to-use disinfectant spray. We've done about 286,000 32-ounce bottles of that," Vann said.

The disinfectant can be used with Power Breezers, misting fans that DPS is now using to cleanse dormitories and other areas within prisons.

The state had bought 265 of the machines before the pandemic and has repurposed them in 15 prisons after the U.S. Environment Protection Agency gave Power Breezer approval to use disinfectant instead of water in the machines.

"The prisons are definitely leading the way with what challenges they faced, and North Carolina is actually at the very forefront of this with the large quantity they just purchased," said Bryan Hoadley, chief revenue officer for Power Breezer. "They’re using them in the break rooms, the dorm rooms, the gyms, the cafeterias."

The machines run for 45 minutes to an hour in an empty area to coat all surfaces with disinfectant. After letting the mist sit for another 10 minutes or so, crews wipe everything down and then let inmates back in.

Hoadley said the school district in Winston-Salem recently bought a Power Breezer to help disinfect classrooms and school buses.