New York Inmates Forced to Make Hand Sanitizer, But Lack Coronavirus Protection

Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasts about producing sanitizer while ignoring the plight of Black and Brown prisoners.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been attempting to assist state health officials in battling the coronavirus outbreak but some people are questioning his methods.

Yesterday (March 9), news broke that Cuomo had enlisted prison labor to mass produce state-made hand sanitizer.

So are Black and Brown bodies being used to combat COVID-19, but not benefitting from their work? Seems like it.

"We are introducing New York State Clean hand sanitizer, made conveniently by the state of New York. This is a superior product to products now on the market," said Cuomo, who was responding to price gouging for a product that normally retails for less than $2 for a few ounces in most stores.

"Corcraft, actually, is making it for the state,” the governor explained. “Corcraft makes glass cleaner, floor cleaners, degreaser, laundry detergent, vehicle fluids, hand cleaner, and now they make hand sanitizer with alcohol. Our current capacity is 100,000 gallons per week, and we'll be ramping up."


But Corcraft is the name of  the brand of products manufactured by the New York State Department of Corrections, meaning it’s made by prison inmates. New York City website Gothamist reports, the hand sanitizer is made by 98 prisoners at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a men's maximum security prison in Comstock, N.Y.

While the inmates are making the product to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay, they are only earning 16 cents an hour, compared to the $15 New York state minimum wage. What’s more, it’s not clear how they will get sanitizer themselves for protection from the virus, although so far there have been no reports of the disease entering the state prison system.

If prisoners in New York -- 49 percent of which are Black -- are going to be forced to create items that will help New Yorkers avoid contracting a potentially deadly disease why isn’t there also a plan to protect them as well?

Cuomo’s plan has angered the Legal Aid Society, which sent out an email condemning the action. 

“From fighting dangerous forest fires to now mass producing vital hand sanitizer, government and big business continue to force the labor of incarcerated individuals – for pennies on the dollar – for a political purpose or to line their own pockets,” said a statement from Legal Aid Society officials Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice, and Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Practice. 

“These individuals work for less than a dollar a day under threat of punishment – including solitary confinement –  if they refuse,” they continued. “Albany must pay these individuals the minimum wage and lawmakers must legislate to eradicate forced labor across our state for good.”

Cuomo did say New York State Clean sanitizer will be distributed to state agencies, including prisons, but Department of Corrections visitors rules state prisoners are prohibited from receiving this particular kind of hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content. 

"No item may be received which lists alcohol as an ingredient." the visitor handbook states.

Prisons are places where viruses can easily spread, depending on the conditions. Major outbreaks have been kept in check in recent years, but an outbreak of stomach flu in Chicago’s Cook County jail required the quarantine of 700 inmates, according to the Associated Press. Because of the COVID-19 scare, U.S. prisons have been put on high alert.

It’s not clear what the department’s plan is to prevent the virus from affecting the incarcerated, which like many other states are disproportionately represented by people of color.

Perhaps it’s time for Cuomo to clarify before he has more on his hands than sanitizer.

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