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Travis County Sheriff's Office

"We appreciate the inmates' efforts to stop the spread," Dr. Mark Escott said. (Travis County Sheriff's Office)

Travis County jail inmates will start sewing masks out of donated cloth and surplus black-and-white striped uniforms today in hopes of outfitting all inmates and employees with face coverings, jail officials said Tuesday.

The effort follows a recommendation by city and county health officials over the weekend to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At least three sewing machines were co-opted from job-readiness classes that aren't being taught right now due to social distancing limitations, said Kristen Dark, senior public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.


Since the recommendation early this week that all Austin residents wear fabric face coverings when out in public, jail leaders have been grappling with how to do that for its roughly 1,650 inmates and nearly 1,000 staffers, expressing concerns about security and supply.

Sheriff's deputies are being allowed to wear masks that they make or buy for themselves, Dark said, but it was trickier to authorize corrections officers to do it if the inmates weren't allowed the same protections.

So far, the county and city have not mandated the use of the masks, but Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, hinted that they might become a requirement if people do not follow current guidelines or the outbreak shows no signs of slowing.

The masks are the latest in a concerted effort by county prosecutors, judges and jail officials to keep the jails clear of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

"We're trying to do our part to follow all of the recommendations as delivered," Dark said. As of Tuesday, no inmates had tested positive for the illness, she said.

Escott praised the idea on Tuesday.

"We appreciate the inmates' efforts to stop the spread," Escott said. "We need everyone in the community to join the fight against this virus. This is a way of coming together."

Dark said that once they're made, the masks will be cleaned and laundered and then distributed according to risk, with priority going to the people who are most likely to come in contact with others.

"I don't know that we've completely landed on where this supply will end up, but what we're trying to do is generate as many masks as we can, between what inmates are making, what people are donating, and what employees are bringing," Dark said.

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