Some grim news came out of the small town of Anamosa, Iowa on Tuesday. This community is home to a century old state run penitentiary. While being treated in the infirmary, an inmate attacked multiple staff members and inmates. The inmate was eventually controlled, but not until injuring many and killing two, a nurse and a guard.
This incident hits close to home. During a former life, I worked at this prison in 1999 while employed by the 3M Company. This is a working prison. The inmates have an opportunity to make some income by working up to four hours per day at an on site factory.
Stereo-typically, license plates are manufactured here as well as office furniture and soap. Some of the processes exposed the inmate workers to an unsafe amount of airborne contaminates. As a respiratory protection expert at the time the prison Safety Officer invited me in to make recommendations that would protect workers health.
An armed guard was assigned for my protection who escorted me to the three separate manufacturing areas to audit their practices and interview some of the affected inmates.
There were two conversations with Corrections staff that stayed in my memory and that I have shared with some people occasionally the last 20 plus years.
After interviewing the first inmate my guard asked me what I thought of that prisoner. The welder/inmate was a young man, no older than 30 in my estimation. He was polite and offered a complete assessment of what he does and what the environment was like in his welding booth. I told the officer that I was surprised at how politely I was treated by the inmate.
Here is memorable conversation number one that I remember like it happened yesterday. The guard’s response was this. “He would most likely try to kill you if I were not here protecting you.”
Until Tuesday’s news out of Iowa, I thought he was just trying to frighten me. Which of course, he did. Anyway… the potential harm that I volunteered for is now cemented in my mind.
This prison houses roughly 1,000 inmates. About 700 of them were convicted of violent crimes…
Memorable conversation number two was with the warden. After sharing my recommendations for each work center with the site safety officer it was determined that the warden would need to hear them and the warden would give the final approval.
The problem with respiratory protection for an inmate was unique to any other facility that I’d ever been to. The levels of contaminate at each work center were relatively low, barely over Permissible Exposure Limits. Half mask and full face respirators with the correct filter should have sufficed.
Unfortunately, many inmates wore facial hair. Facial hair breaks the seal of the mask and renders them useless in the eyes of OSHA. (Take note COVID19 mask users.) Worse yet, corrections could not legally require inmates to shave. As the Safety Officer stated: “At most factories, few workers have a lawyer. At a prison factory, every worker has a lawyer. We must find a form of protection that works regardless of facial hair.”
My answer to the problem was a fresh air system that uses filtered compressed continuous flow air delivered to a helmet or hood. Relatively expensive, but very protective.
By now you may be wondering what the warden said that stayed with me. Here it is.
The warden asked me: “If a riot breaks out, could the inmates use these respirators to protect themselves from tear gas?” Wow! The question hit me like a ton of bricks.
The answer…yes, if a riot broke out inmates could wear the respirators to protect themselves from tear gas.
The next question was from me and the answer to this question sealed the deal. “If a riot breaks out, is the standard operating procedure to shut down the compressors?” The answer again was yes, because tools that run off of compressed air can be used as weapons.
No compressor, no fresh air. Problem solved.
Life is so fragile, cherish the precious present. It is a gift that should never be taken for granted.