JAMESTOWN — As a former operator of heavy equipment in the Oil Patch, James River Correctional Center inmate Lance Foreman never thought he would learn to sew.

In an effort to meet the demand for masks during the coronavirus pandemic, Foreman spends 12 hours nearly everyday sewing masks and other necessities for those in need.

"It's very enjoyable and very relaxing," he said. "If I can prove myself here, I should be able to prove myself any place."

Inmates like Foreman are employed through Rough Rider Industries, a division of the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that employs inmates on good behavior for skill-building jobs such as furniture-making and metal work. The inmates are paid anywhere from 49 cents to $1.67 an hour, Rough Rider Director Rick Gardner said.

By the end of the month, the approximately 50 James River Correctional Facility inmates working to make the masks are expected to hit the 100,000 mark. When the program is fully operational, the inmates make anywhere between 1,500 to 2,000 masks each day, Gardner said.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

When the pandemic began, Rough Riders started receiving orders from various long-term care facilities and schools, among other businesses, and the orders for masks have not slowed down, he said. Demand is so high that Rough Riders is considering opening up another sewing program at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck to keep up with orders, he added.

Correctional facilities and prisons across the nation have been making masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit the United States.

Gardner said the material to make masks has been in short supply, especially because many North Dakota correctional facilities are making masks, so there is a lot of coordination needed to fulfill orders.

The program is prioritizing orders in which the masks will go to organizations and residents of North Dakota. Gardner said each of the inmates is dedicated to giving back to the community and helping others.

"They're in here for a reason," Gardner said. "They know that this is an opportunity for them to change their life and give back to society."

Foreman said he makes $1.59 an hour and has been working for Rough Riders at the James River Correctional Center for about three years. He said he is grateful he can help the public even while he is serving time.

"When I leave here, I'm positive I can walk out of here with my head held high," Foreman said. "I can do whatever I need to do to go on with life and help out the public."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com