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Jay-Z And Meek Mill's Organisation Sends 100,000 Surgical Masks To Prisons

The rappers' criminal justice reform organisation is sending nearly 100,000 surgical masks to several correctional facilities across America.

The jails include the troubled Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City.

The masks will be sent to the facilities to help correctional officers, health care workers and inmates in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The REFORM Alliance announced on Friday local time it would send 40,000 masks to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, 5,000 masks to Parchman and 50,000 to Rikers, and another 2,500 to a Rikers medical facility. The alliance said prisons have been especially impacted by the global shortage of protective gear.

Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter (L) and Meek Mill attend the launch of The Reform Alliance at John Jay College on January 23, 2019 in New York City. Image: Kevin Mazur/Getty

"It's a very vulnerable population," Jessica Jackson, the chief advocacy officer at REFORM told CBS News.

"We're really worried about the number of people coming in and out of the facility, and the fact that the people living there might be sitting ducks during this pandemic."

Advocates have warned that the coronavirus will spread quickly among incarcerated populations since confined spaces make it nearly impossible for inmates to abide by social distancing guidelines.

As of Thursday local time, 231 inmates and 223 staff members at New York City jails tested positive for the virus, which has become the country's single largest outbreak behind bars.

Sections of the complex at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York, USA, 31 March 2020. Image: EPA/JUSTIN LANE

Behind New York City, the Cook County jail in Chicago has the second-largest outbreak in the country, with 167 detainees and 46 sheriff's office staffers infected.

Jackson said the organisation spoke with officials in each of the states. She said New York City and Tennessee expressed the desire to help those incarcerated during the outbreak but severely lacked the resources to do so.

"Overwhelmingly the response was, 'please provide the masks, we really need them.' They want to protect the people working and living in the facilities," Jackson added. "I think Rikers Island especially, they are very aware the virus has hit and so many lives are now at risk."

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US health authorities have changed their positions on masks, reflecting concern over an alarming rate of infection spread by people with no symptoms.

Many facilities are now working to lower their populations to address these concerns. Over the weekend, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said at least 650 inmates have been released from Rikers Island to ease overcrowding.

The surgical mask donations are part of REFORM Alliance's SAFER Plan, a set of policy recommendations to help prisons and jails respond to an outbreak. Jackson said while progress has been made, officials need to go further.

"We're still looking at jail and prison populations that are completely overcrowded to dangerous levels when you're looking at a pandemic like this head-on," she added. "This is a movement, but we need all of the voices we can get."