New York to pay incarcerated laborers 65 cents an hour to make hand sanitizer to fight coronavirus

Tamar Sarai Davis  |  Updated Mar 10, 2020 8:32am EST
In Monday's press briefing on coronavirus, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that to help address its rapid spread, statewide shortages in hand sanitizer, and price gouging from major online retailers, the state will begin selling its own hand sanitizing product called New York State Clean. The new product will soon be made available to schools, the MTA, and other government agencies. The product is, as Cuomo noted, “made conveniently … by the state of New York.”
However, when Cuomo says “the state of New York,” he actually means the incarcerated men and women at Great Meadows Correctional Facility in Washington County, New York. Incarcerated workers at Great Meadows and all throughout the state are employed by Corcraft, the “brand name” of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).They will be tasked with producing the 100,000 gallons of New York State Clean that Cuomo announced will be made on a weekly basis—all for 65 cents per hour.
Corcraft workers statewide earn between 16 and 65 cents per hour manufacturing a range of products that are then purchased by New York schools, police departments, transit authorities, and other government entities. At Auburn Correctional Facility, incarcerated workers produce all license plates for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). A bit further east at Greene Correctional Facility, they operate the DMV’s telephone call center. People incarcerated at Wallkill Correctional Facility manufacture prescription eyewear for New York Medicaid recipients, and at Fishkill, incarcerated people are tasked with the hazardous job of asbestos abatement.
While past stories on prison labor have focused on major retailers like Victoria’s Secret or Walmart for employing the use of cheap or free labor from incarcerated workers, private contractors actually comprise only a small portion of those who take advantage. Nationwide, less than 1% of incarcerated people are employed by private companies as a part of a federal work program. About 6%, however, are employed by state correctional industries like Corcraft.
In New York, Corcraft enjoys the status of “preferred source” under state law, meaning the company is exempt from any competitive bidding process and that government entities are required to purchase its products. While Corcraft earned over $50 million in revenue in 2019 from the sale of its products, New York’s incarcerated workers don’t earn anything close to a living wage and take home less than $2,000 a year for their work, flying in the face of Corcraft’s own stated goal to “prepare offenders for release.”
Since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York was reported on Mar. 1, the virus and anxiety around it has spread at a staggering speed. By Mar. 9, the day of Cuomo’s announcement about New York State Clean, the state had reported 142 cases.
In the hours following the governor’s press briefing, organizers from the Release Aging People from Prison Campaign, VOCAL-NY, Citizen Action of NY, Parole Preparation Project, and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement Campaign released a statement condemning Cuomo’s announcement of a plan to use the labor of incarcerated New Yorkers while also rolling back key criminal justice reforms and failing to grant clemency to petitioners throughout the state.
“We demand Governor Cuomo use his clemency power to release incarcerated New Yorkers who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, including older people, pregnant women, people with serious illnesses and compromised immune systems,'' the groups said in a statement. “We also call on the governor to ensure that people in prison are compensated with a living wage.”
The incarcerated laborers working from Great Meadows to produce thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer will be preventing the spread of a deadly illness, but will remain vulnerable themselves. An incarcerated person at the Great Meadows facility would have to work more than 18 hours just to buy a single gallon of New York State Clean that they manufactured—if they were allowed to. DOCCS regulations prohibit incarcerated New Yorkers from being in possession of any products with alcohol as an ingredient, including hand sanitizer. 
Tamar Sarai Davis is Prism’s criminal justice staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter.     
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