TAOYUAN, TAIWAN – Behind the barbed wire-topped fences of Taipei Prison, a small group of inmates are hunched over clacking sewing machines, working overtime to churn out face masks and help ward off the new coronavirus.
Usually the men would be making prison uniforms in the bright-lit sewing factory in the city of Taoyuan.
But after the coronavirus spread to Taiwan they switched to making masks, putting together some 52,000 face coverings since mid-February.
Sporting a gray face mask himself, a 50-year-old inmate surnamed Yuh said he was keeping his family close to heart as he worked.
“When they came to see me, they said it was very difficult to buy face masks out there. I said to them ‘Daddy is making face masks here, and that maybe you will have the benefit and the opportunity to use it,'” he said.
“Every time I sew face masks, I think to myself that it can bring some security to my family.”
Yuh is currently 10 years into a 23-year sentence for possession of drugs and firearms.
“This little face mask not only lets us contribute to society, it also gives us self-esteem,” he said.
The inmates — who have volunteered for the job — work quickly with machines they have clearly come to know well.
After stitching the fabric with the sewing machines, they carefully trim the masks with small scissors before ironing and packaging them.
Taiwan’s prisons routinely employ prisoners to make products from food to garments and soaps.
The programs are designed to teach inmates practical skills as well as raise funds for victim compensation and the improvement of facilities.
The masks are sold for around 25 New Taiwan dollars (83 cents) each and the inmates are paid a small wage which they can spend within the prison.
Correctional facilities across Taiwan are taking part in the new program to manufacture cloth face masks and face mask protectors to supply their staff and the public.
Taiwan was briefly struck by panic buying of medical face masks earlier this year until the government introduced a rationing system.
The island has been held up as an example of how to handle an outbreak, with the government moving fast to reduce overseas arrivals from infected areas and issue clear medical guidance that has been widely adopted by the public.
Despite being so close to the original outbreak in mainland China, Taiwan has just 48 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease, with one death.
The wearing of face masks among the public has become fairly widespread.
But many Taiwanese say the current rationing of three surgical masks a week is insufficient.
As a result the face mask covers that prisons make can come in handy — they are used to cover surgical masks to extend their duration.
Yen Chih-hong, a Taipei Prison official who helps run the program, said inmates in the prison now make around 1,000 face masks daily, up from an initial 450 as orders keep increasing.
“They are very willing to work extra shifts to fill in the orders. … Sometimes I have to ask them to take a break,” he said.
Nearby Hong Kong, which is suffering widespread face masks shortages, has long used prison labor to make surgical masks, primarily for government and health care workers.
The operation there is far larger with prisoners able to churn out more than a million masks a month.
In recent weeks, prison staffers have even joined inmates to bolster their ranks.
Last week, officials said they would launch an investigation after some of the prison-made masks had made their way onto pharmacy shelves for sale.
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