CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the number of the jail's inmates was 359 on July 22 and 235 on July 28. Those were the numbers of inmates in quarantine. The corrected version appears below.
Annemarie Aldrich is hunting for answers. At the coronavirus pandemic’s outset, her store, Denton's Rose Costumes, began sewing masks for inmates and staff at the Denton County Jail.
Dubbing the effort “Project Mask Makers,” Aldrich said volunteers delivered thousands of handmade cloth masks that were tailored to jail officials’ specifications. Then, Aldrich said, they suddenly disappeared.
Last week, the Dallas Observer reported that inmates at the Denton County Jail were made to reuse disposable paper masks, some of which had holes in them. That made Aldrich wonder: Where did all those handmade masks go?
“I had volunteers in tears on Saturday and just vowed to them that I will get to the bottom of this,” Aldrich said. “When I saw that photo from inside the jail, I was shocked and appalled and devastated."
Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
After the pandemic hit, Aldrich employed a team of staff and 200 volunteers to sew masks for organizations in need, the Denton County Jail included.
In all, Rose Costumes has donated masks to 78 organizations, such as assisted living facilities, police and fire departments, homeless shelters and Denton’s postal fleet. When the sheriff’s office placed an order, though, Aldrich said she put everything else on hold.
Aldrich said jail officials asked for 2,000 washable cloth masks. Those for inmates had to be gray or orange, she said, while guards were sewn black ones with metallic nose guards. All were made with elastic bands.
In a video taken Sunday by Denton activist Jessica Luther Rummel, though, a recently released former inmate said he never received a cloth mask. He added that inmates were only given disposable paper ones.
“We’d only get one of those, and we’d keep reusing the same one,” he said of the disposable masks.
Masks were dropped off sporadically between May 20 and July 3, said Project Mask Makers’ communications coordinator Kayly Nesser. Volunteers handed boxes to officers outside and were not allowed to take photos from inside the building, she said.
Nesser said that after she found out that the masks were missing, she felt insulted on behalf of the volunteers. Hundreds of people spent time and money to help the jail out, she said.
“The effort that they put into it and the compassion that they had, that was all just absolutely thrown out the window,” Nesser said. “I couldn’t believe it honestly. I was so frustrated, to the point of, almost in tears.”
Volunteer Tracy Runnels said that she was also upset after learning of the missing masks.
“We put other charities on hold to help them," she said of the Denton County Jail.
Aldrich said she’s attempted to contact Murphree since Saturday. After she didn’t hear back, though, she started a social media campaign, #WHEREARETHEMASKS.
Since the campaign’s inception, Aldrich said she’s received a flood of positive responses. She’s had “a lot of hate” thrown her way, too, but said she doesn’t let it stop her.
In a statement Monday, Murphree said that the jail had a remaining 700 masks from Rose Costumes in storage and supervisors knew where they were. He also said other organizations had donated cloth masks.
“We keep the cloth mask in inventory in case it becomes difficult to obtain the disposable mask in the future,” Murphree said in the statement.
By hoarding its unused cloth mask stash in boxes, Aldrich said jail officials are depriving other communities in need, such as the town's homeless population.
Murphree’s statement also claimed that reports of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the jail were false. Yet Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said each county jail reports its own coronavirus numbers to the state's commission daily.
Last week, the Denton County Jail reported it had 37 coronavirus-positive inmates. This Tuesday, it reported four.
Last week’s report also counted 359 inmates in quarantine; Tuesday, there were 235.
It’s unclear whether 124 inmates have been released back into the jail’s general population over the past week or how many of those had tested positive for COVID-19.
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Luther Rummel said she's spoken with around a dozen former inmates who were never issued a cloth mask during their time in jail. They also were not released into the public with a mask, she said.
Although she’s currently without answers, Aldrich said Project Mask Maker has redoubled efforts to aid Denton County Jail staff and inmates. Hopefully, she added, they'll actually get them this time.
“Just because people are incarcerated doesn’t mean they don’t deserve compassion and human decency and rights,” Aldrich said. “Whether they’re incarcerated or not, they’re still our citizens — they’re still our people.”