The state Legislature received masks made by prisoners — but it’s unclear who used them

sewing_inmate
An inmate sews a mask at SCI Huntingdon. Prison laborers have made upwards of 300,000 masks for corrections officials, state employees, and lawmakers, (DoC photo)

One thing is for certain. In early April, the Pennsylvania General Assembly received 200 cloth face masks made by state prison inmates working 12-hour days and paid, at most, a little more than a $1 an hour.

But the Wolf administration and General Assembly leaders do not agree on who asked for the masks, and who actually wore them is an open question.

Kate Flessner, spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration “offered” the Senate the masks. Wolf’s spokesperson, on the other hand, says lawmakers asked for the protective equipment.

“Legislative leaders and staff requested masks,” said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger in an email. “The administration worked with [the Department of Corrections] to fulfill the request so legislators and their staff could be safe during session.”

The 200 masks lawmakers received are just a fraction of a fraction of the 311,193 masks inmates have produced as of last week.

So far, those masks have been provided to corrections officials, essential state employees, other public employees from county jails to veterans’ facilities, as well as the inmates themselves.

The reusable cloth masks were offered on a first-come, first-served basis to lawmakers and staff who went to the Capitol during the first two weeks of April.

But at least one rank-and-file lawmaker saw a PR crisis in the making from using prison-made masks and tried to provide alternative gear. 

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, found out the masks came from Pennsylvania’s prison manufacturing program and said it was “a huge red flag.”

So, through a friend-of-a-friend, he found 125 cloth masks from a manufacturer in northeastern Pennsylvania who offered them for free to the lawmakers. Diamond picked them up, and delivered the masks to Harrisburg April 5.

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Top, a state corrections-made mask. Bottom, a mask provided by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, to the Pa. House.

The next session day, April 6, Diamond said he encouraged colleagues to use his masks, and said he didn’t see any lawmakers use the masks sewn by prisoners.

Video from a House committee hearing that day shows some lawmakers in both parties wearing nondescript white masks that appear similar to those provided by Diamond, according to a photo he shared with the Capital-Star.

Diamond’s concerns were twofold. First, the prison-made masks should be saved for needy people at higher risk of exposure, Diamond argued.

“If you’re using cheaply-paid prison labor, it oughta go to the most vulnerable people in our commonwealth,” Diamond said.

But he also saw poor optics in lawmakers wearing prison-made masks.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, wearing a mask during a House committee meeting on April 6, 2020. (Pa. House video)

“We were cognizant of your headline and wanted to avoid it,” Diamond told the Capital-Star, referring to the negative media coverage the arrangement might invite.

‘All means all’

Prison conditions have been under greater scrutiny as advocates fear the rapid spread of COVID-19 in cramped Pennsylvania state prisons that currently house a little less than 47,000 inmates.

As of April 22, 29 state prison inmates — and another 54 corrections employees — have tested positive for coronavirus. One inmate, whose case was recently taken up by a law project that attempts to prove innocence, has died.

Prison labor sparks activist outrage in the best of times. And penal labor has continued across the country amid the pandemic, from laundry in Oregon to clearing debris in Florida.

One key Democratic Senator who sits on a key criminal justice committee said that he has no problem with inmates pitching in to help during the pandemic.

“How do I feel about inmates making masks? Look, we’re all in this together. All means all,” Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, and the ranking member of his party on the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“If prisoners want to contribute, we should let them. Give them a feeling of community and responsibility,” he added. Farnese also expressed support for giving incarcerated workers a pay raise.

A greater concern, Farnese said, is why so many prisoners are still locked up during the public health emergency.

Wolf implemented a temporary reprieve program to get elderly and sick prisoners out of crowded jails. That program has, since it started April 10, released 112 inmates — about a fourth of a percent of the state’s prison population. 

At the same time, the state’s pardon board, lacking consensus, might not meet this spring, closing off another avenue for relief.

So, Farnese argued, Wolf should expand release eligibility.

‘Sometimes I shrug’

However the masks ended up in the Capitol, the special delivery was welcome news to House Chief Clerk David Reddecliff, who said the Wolf administration reached out to him to deliver the order.

“I have no idea who approached who on this,” Reddecliff told the Capital-Star. “I was simply grateful that we would have some masks in the early days.”

Reddecliff said he had tried to be proactive and put in a private order in March, but was still told he’d have to wait.

Then, on April 3, Wolf asked all citizens to wear masks when they went outside. The House planned to report back to Harrisburg April 6, and still hadn’t received any protective gear. 

So with the House’s order still pending, Reddecliff was relieved when the administration asked him to coordinate delivery of 200 masks that weekend. He split the order between the two chambers.

Reddecliff added he “heard grumbles we shouldn’t be using prison labor,” but added that he “was trying to be proactive.”

“Sometimes I shrug,” Reddecliff said. “Regardless of what we’re doing, it’s going to satisfy some people and not satisfy others.”

Capital-Star reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed reporting