Home >News >India >Prisoners on an overdrive to make masks in coronavirus-hit Kerala
(File photo) Medical staff, wearing protective suits (PTI)
(File photo) Medical staff, wearing protective suits (PTI)

Prisoners on an overdrive to make masks in coronavirus-hit Kerala

  • Kerala has a total of 7,589 prisoners in 55 jails, and all of them are following the same routine
  • The cloth masks the prisoners make are supposedly enough to prevent the virus from spreading wider through droplets spit out during one's coughing or sneezing

Ernakulam: The relentless clamour of sewing machines welcomed visitors to Kerala jails this week, as if they are converted into a factory, much in contrast to the deadly silence one usually encounters in such places. As Kerala remains nearly paralysed and in shock over the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected 24 people and put into quarantine over 12000 people, the whirring sound of the machines are signs of how jails have become an unlikely outpost to help overcome a severe shortage in the battle against the coronavirus: shortage of masks.

The cloth masks the prisoners make are supposedly enough to prevent the virus from spreading wider through droplets spit out during one's coughing or sneezing. “It is a race against time, since the masks are more effective before the virus is spread in the community. So we are making as many masks as we can," said Shoba, who leads the team of women prisoners as deputy superintendent of the jail in Ernakulam district. The place has the most number of people isolated in homes and hospitals and in desperate need of masks that have nearly vanished from supply chains.

Shoba said that four prisoners and five staffers, including herself, typically made around 500 masks every day for the last few days. That is a staggering 20 masks an hour, a laborious work which can go on from 7 am to until 12 am next day, all in the service of the society which has put those prisoners behind the bars.

The so-called jail factory is flooded with orders. What initially began as a move to benefit frontline health workers have now received orders from municipalities, corporations, various government wings such as Excise and Motor Vehicles department (who screen virus suspects on roads) and so on, said Jagadeeshan, superintendent of the Ernakulam jail. They are racing to hire more prisoners— 28 members including prisoners and jail staffers are on it right now— and plans to open counter sales at the front gates to help with the general public, he said.

Kerala has a total of 7589 prisoners in 55 jails, and all of them are following the same routine, said Rishi Raj Singh, Kerala’s prison’s chief and Director General of Police. Singh, a mustachioed officer who has a larger than life image in Kerala, is considered as the master brain behind the scheme. He said that he had foreseen a panic situation as it is now, which has forced countries like Iran to even temporarily free about 85000 prisoners in response to the coronavirus epidemic.

“Some 20 days ago, we had anticipated that the virus panic would make the masks run out of stock. Since we already have tailoring units, it just occurred to us one day that why not take advantage of it. The health department generously provided us with white clothes, and thus we started," he said.

The Ernakulam unit, though, had no sewing machines earlier, although many of the women inmates knew tailoring work. So the jail authorities spread the word among private businessmen in the city, and sponsers rushed in, said Shoba. A 30-year old woman who had the experience of running a tailoring shop for long was put in charge to teach others, she said.

Being a prisoner during an epidemic outbreak has its benefits, as they are perhaps the most isolated ones from the larger society where the virus is spreading. But, Shoba said, the prisoners see it differently. They see it as an opportunity to connect with their loved ones outside the walled compounds, even if they are not physically seeing them, and feel less banished, she said.

“They are fully dedicated to this. In the past, we would feel that the criminal tendencies of prisoners will increase by the time they are released. It is not so anymore. They want to live a better life once they are out. Many are here because of their circumstances. We never push them to work, they are themselves interested in doing social work," said Shoba.

Their efforts are supplemented by others. As of Monday, Kerala’s one-million strong women’s self-help group Kudumbashree has started making 1,26,950 masks out of its 268 units spread across all 14 districts. All of these masks are priced at 10 to 20, depending upon the material and the layers used.

The Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals (KSDP), a public sector company which makes drugs, has also begun production of hand sanitisers, another crucial preventive item that is also fastly vanishing from the market. In the last 10 days, the company has produced over one lakh bottles and supplied it to government offices and the general public. It has significantly helped the state to boost the ‘Break The Chain’ campaign, where it provides hand sanitisers and soaps to wash hands in public places, and stop the spread. The KSDP sanitisers are also priced at Rs. 125 for 500 ml, a fraction of the going market rate.

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