Incarcerated people tasked to make hand sanitizer to fight coronavirus are banned from using it themselves

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo display NYS Clean, a state-produced hand sanitizer.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo display NYS Clean, a state-produced hand sanitizer.
Image: AP Photo/Marina Villeneuve
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New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced this week that incarcerated individuals at the Great Meadows Correctional Facility will be making alcohol-based hand sanitizer to combat state-wide shortages due to the rapidly growing number of Covid-19 cases. 

He said the decision was made to offset the steep prices of hand sanitizer being sold through Amazon, Purell, and other retailers.

The use of prison labor is fraught with ethical problems, like low wages and forced exploitation. It is also problematic in this case because the prisoners themselves are banned from using the hand sanitizer they would be making for everyone else. Most prisons, including Great Meadows, treat alcohol-base sanitizer—which is the most effective and recommended by the CDC—as contraband. In his press conference, Cuomo highlighted the high alcohol volume of the New York-state produced hand sanitizer, stating that “‘NYS Clean’ is 75 percent alcohol.”

Meanwhile, as the country grapples with how to effectively contain the spread of Covid-19, prisons and jails are a prime spot for the virus to proliferate. Inadequate healthcare and lack of hygiene products compounds the problem and reports of a complete lack of preparedness have plagued departments of corrections around the country. Forcing incarcerated people to make hand sanitizer for the general population—while being denied thorough preventative measures for themselves—has left many questioning Cuomo’s decision. 

Cheap labor

The state government said that men who are incarcerated at the maximum-security prison in Comstock, New York will be producing 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer each week. The sanitizer will be delivered to state run entities like schools and municipal offices.

Labor in state-run correctional facilities is handled by the Department of Corrections Industries, also known as Corcraft. On average, incarcerated individuals earn about $0.62 cents an hour to produce goods ranging from license plates to pillows and now, hand sanitizer. While wages remain well below the state minimum, the prices of individual products in prison remains high. A Bureau of Prisons commissary list prices soap at $0.95 cents and toilet paper at $5.30 per pack. Legislation passed in 2012 requires incarcerated individuals to pay a copayment of $7 to see a doctor. 

Exploiting low-paid prison labor in response to market changes pushes the boundaries of ethical treatment of incarcerated individuals, especially in times of public health crises. Following Cuomo’s announcement, critics quickly highlighted the low pay offered to incarcerated individuals who have no other work opportunities available to them in order for the state to save money or in most cases, make a profit.

Massachusetts lawmaker Ayanna Pressley condemned Cuomo’s decisions on Twitter, calling it “inhumane.”

It is not uncommon for governments to use prison labor in emergencies. As Covid-19 progressed in Asia, for example, a Hong Kong watchdog group reported that “prison inmates were assigned to work round-the-clock to boost the government’s internal mask supplies.” Men in prison are often conscripted into fighting wildfires. Vox reported that incarcerated men fighting California’s devastating 2018 wildfires earned $1 per hour for their work. Former New York mayor and recently felled presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg used prison-run call centers to contact voters during his 2020 presidential run, something he later apologized for.