As The Washington Post’s Kim Bellware reported, the dramatic reveal was Cuomo’s way of announcing that New York state was starting to manufacture its own hand sanitizer. To combat shortages and price gouging, the state intends to produce up to 100,000 gallons of alcohol-based disinfectant a week and distribute it in communities affected by the novel coronavirus.
But there was a catch: The germ-killing fluid would be made by prison inmates, who typically earn less than $1 an hour, have a heightened risk of contracting the virus and are forbidden from possessing hand sanitizer themselves.
At Monday’s news conference, Cuomo proudly pointed out the antibacterial gel would cost just $6 a gallon to produce. Liberal politicians and advocates for criminal justice reform quickly realized why it was so cheap and excoriated the governor for relying on “slave labor” to slow the spread of the virus.
“Wow,” tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) “Considering that many incarcerated men & women are subjected to inhumane conditions, including no hand soap, & hand sanitizer is banned in most prisons, this is especially demeaning, ironic & exploitative.”
While Cuomo has said that some of the government-produced hand sanitizer will be distributed to prisons, officials haven’t responded to inquiries about whether incarcerated people will be allowed to use it, or if it’s intended for staff only. Like many correctional systems nationwide, New York considers hand sanitizer to be contraband because of its high alcohol content.
And the antibacterial liquid that inmates are making at an alcohol content of 75 percent has even higher concentration than the 60 percent used for commercial hand sanitizers, Cuomo said Monday.
As the Marshall Project recently reported, broken sinks and shortages of soap are commonplace in prisons and jails, making it impossible for inmates to follow basic public health guidelines. People who are handcuffed can’t cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and one former Texas inmate told the outlet that she was punished for grabbing a squirt of hand sanitizer when she left the doctor’s office.
Because prisoners are often held in crowded conditions and lack adequate health care, experts worry that correctional facilities are particularly vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak. In New York, prison officials have introduced a new screening protocol for visitors. But activists have lobbied Cuomo to release incarcerated people who have a heightened risk of contracting the disease, including pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly.
Meanwhile, the New York inmates whose work may help slow the spread of coronavirus are earning less than minimum wage, advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society pointed out on Monday. Prison wages start at 16 cents an hour and average 65 cents an hour, according to Gothamist. Even those who qualify for productivity bonuses still only earn a maximum of $1.30 an hour. The minimum wage in New York ranges between $11.80 and $15 an hour depending on the worker’s location.
“This is nothing less than slave labor and it must end,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement calling for inmates to be paid minimum wage and granted access to hand sanitizer. “These individuals work for less than a dollar a day under threat of punishment — including solitary confinement — if they refuse."
Cuomo has expressed support for raising prison wages, but a bill that would do so failed to pass through the state legislature last year, Gothamist reported. State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, the Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the legislation, told the outlet that he plans to reintroduce it.
“Hand sanitizer shouldn’t cost $50 and workers correcting that injustice shouldn’t be paid 50 cents an hour,” he said. “We can change that right now if we desired.”
The alcohol-based cleaning agent that New York prisoners are making will be distributed free of charge to schools, hospitals, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other government agencies throughout the state, Cuomo told reporters on Monday. Decrying reports of price gouging, he said that high-risk communities and those most affected by the coronavirus would get first priority.
On social media, many New Yorkers said that they’d been impressed with the plan until they realized it hinged on the minimally compensated work of incarcerated people. Some deemed the scenario “dystopian” and drew parallels to California’s reliance on inmates to fight deadly forest fires.
Cuomo’s office didn’t immediately respond to inquiries late Monday night about how much inmates will be paid to manufacture the hand sanitizer, which has been branded “NYS Clean.” In a statement to the New York Post, Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, defended the decision to use prison labor.
“A central part of prison rehabilitation is job training and skill development, and this is part of that existing program that’s been in place for years,” he said.