In mid-March, when Governor Jim Justice announced that West Virginia had its first case of COVID-19 and issued a Stay-at-Home order, he also asked that all West Virginians, who were able to make protective masks, to fire up their sewing machines to help healthcare workers and other essential workers to stay safe.
That call to action included the sewing department at Denmar Correctional Center.
As soon as word reached the center and West Virginia Correctional Industries plant manager Rick George and employee Charlene Beverage, they quickly collected materials and got the men to work.
“Mrs. B and I both saw it,” George said. “She ended up calling [director Eddie Long] at home on a Sunday and he gave us permission. When we got to work, she called the warden, and the warden said, ‘Let’s go get some material.’”
Beverage and George went to DebAnn’s Fabrics in Hillsboro and got a large batch of material to start the new project.
The sewing department at Denmar usually consists of about 40 inmates who are paid to sew prison uniforms, which are used throughout the state.
As soon as all the materials for masks were available, the prison uniform production was put on hold, and the inmates had a new product to produce.
“We’ve made them for Greenbrier Valley Hospital, Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, Pocahontas Homeland Security, Davis Stuart, Family Refuge Centers in Lewisburg and Marlinton, and Greenbrier Manor,” George said. “We started making them as soon as we could, and then we got tasked to do BCR masks [three-layer masks]. Then we started making masks for the National Guard.
“We’ve made so many masks, we didn’t keep a running count, but we’re somewhere around forty thousand made to date,” he added.
Once the demand for masks fizzled a little, the majority of the inmates returned to making uniforms, but six continued to make masks and are now making hospital gowns.
“We call them our COVID line,” George said. “They were making masks as recently as this [Friday] morning for the division, and now they’re making hospital gowns. We just now got into the gown business, but that seems to be the thing they think they’re now going to need the most.”
The inmates have two patterns to use to make the gowns and material from the National Guard, which is inspected before it is delivered to Denmar.
“The National Guard sends the gown material to Lakin Correctional Facility in West Columbia – our sister shop,” George explained. “They mock it up, and they send it to West Virginia University for testing. It goes to WVU, and then if they approve it, it comes back to us and that’s when we get involved in the production.”
The gowns are shipped to hospitals and doctors’ offices.
When the inmates are on lunch break, George and Beverage use the sewing machines to make masks for the community and try to keep as many people supplied as possible.
“That’s how we’re keeping officers in masks and some people that really need them,” George said. “Like our co-workers who have little children that are going back to school. Right now we’re working on schools. We’re trying to get Hillsboro school and the elementary school in Marlinton – at least one for each child if possible.”
The inmates have been lauded for their efforts, and Division of Corrections Director Betsy Jividen paid them a visit to see the operation and pitch in her own sewing skills.
“We had a very positive visit,” George said. “She really liked what she saw. She sat down and sewed with the men. They brought donuts – everybody got two Krispy Kreme donuts which is a big treat. She told us she’s going to come back by herself, and she’s wants to sew all day.”
Despite knowing the virus was spreading through West Virginia and even went through Huttonsville Correction Center and Jail, George said the inmates didn’t panic and tried to stay positive about staying healthy.
“Actually, the inmate population has been pretty calm about the whole thing,” he said. “They’re concerned. We’re all concerned. Of course, they live in a closed society and you notice, they’re not wearing masks and we are because we’re protecting them from us.”
The inmates stay focused on the task at hand and work hard to keep the state supplied with safety gear.
“The guys have done exceptional, and they always do exceptional,” George said. “What we do with them down here is – we have leads that run lines and this is a place where they exercise their minds. This is a chance for them to use their thoughts in a production setting. I’ve got line leads out here that make these little decisions of where to move their people, what to start on next. It’s all communication, and I just kind of stay out of their way until I need to be that deciding factor.”
The inmates are proud of the work they are doing and would like to continue making masks and gowns as long as there is a need during this trying time.
“There’s a lot more we could do – a lot more we would like to do – but to continue our prison uniforms, we can’t,” George said. “I wish we could devote this whole shop to COVID, because it’s positive work for these inmates. All they get to do is make T-shirts and pants, and they’ve made a bunch of them. They make them for the whole state.
“This stuff,” he continued, pointing at colorful masks, “they went crazy on it. They’re really happy to see people wearing their stuff.”
Because the prisons are not taking any new inmates, the need for uniforms has been reduced, so George said if there comes a time when the need for masks and gowns increases, the shop could put the uniforms on hold again.
“We could do more and, in an emergency, we will do more,” he said. “We were getting severely behind, but the one good thing that did help us out, with the COVID coming, we didn’t get a lot of orders [for uniforms] so we didn’t get covered up as much as we normally would have.”
Along with Denmar and Lakin chipping in to make masks and gowns, George said the National Guard bought and distributed home sewing machines to several facilities.
“The work release in Charleston has machines – they’re working because they can’t send their people out,” he said. “We have forty machines set up in Mt. Olive. The National Guard is paying those inmates to run these little home machines.”
As long as there is a need, the inmates will continue to do what they can – one mask or one gown at a time.