It’s another day in the world of awful coronavirus news, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is here to remind us of how much everything sucks.
In a press conference Monday, the governor unveiled a new hand sanitizer that the state will produce. In fact, it’ll produce a whopping 100,000 gallons of this cleansing gel a week. The catch? Incarcerated people are the ones producing this new item, which is supposed to be made available for the “most impacted and high-risk communities and state agencies,” per Cuomo’s office. And they’ll be paid far less than a dollar an hour to do it. Adding salt to the wound, incarcerated people often don’t have access to hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content—so it appears they won’t be among those to benefit from their labor.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision wouldn’t tell Gizmodo whether incarcerated people will be using the hand sanitizer themselves, but a spokesperson was sure to reassure us that specially trained medical staff work at facilities across the state. The state also confirmed that the state has hired 98 incarcerated people to bottle the hand sanitizer at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. They earn, at most, 65 cents per hour, the spokesperson told Gizmodo. This paltry wage is among the highest for the state’s incarcerated. Sigh.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 4,000 people, and at least 113,700 have been afflicted as of Monday afternoon, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
New York state did announce Monday it was implementing “screening protocols” at its 52 correctional facilities. That means visitors will be asked about their recent travels and or symptoms. While the state is clear on tips for visitors, it doesn’t offer any reassurance that the same precautions—around hand washing and hygiene—are an option for those being visited.
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While incarcerated people encounter fewer members of the general population than many people who are not imprisoned, correction officers and state employees at these facilities have ample opportunity to contract COVID-19 and introduce it into prisons and jails. And, as the Marshall Project reports, incarcerated people lack access to simple things—such as clean sinks and showers—that could help prevent the spread of the virus were it to reach the corrections facility.
Gizmodo also reached out to the Bureau of Prisons to learn about the efforts it is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and will update if we hear back. Among the questions we asked: If officials aren’t giving incarcerated people hand sanitizer, at the very least, what are they offering?
Cuomo was sure to emphasize that New York-made hand sanitizer contains 75 percent alcohol, which is 15 percent more than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is necessary to kill illness-causing germs. However, such high alcohol content levels also mean many facilities won’t give incarcerated people access out of fear that individuals will drink the sanitizer to become intoxicated.
This is a thing. However, you’d think that governments would come up with alternatives if hand sanitizer is not the way? This is another of our direct questions the state did not answer. Instead, officials in New York, at least, decide to employ prison labor. Cuomo said the state is working with Corcraft Products, which is a company within the state’s Department of Corrections. Incarcerated workers here manufacture license plates, highway signs, textiles, and apparently ammo against COVID-19. As New York Magazine reported, the state would even employ prisoners at Rikers Island to dig graves should the situation reach a severe level.
Unfortunately, prison labor is sort of a go-to during times of disaster. Take California, for instance. There, the state turns to incarcerated people to help fight out-of-control wildfires. They’re paid a mere $5.12 a day, which is actually a major jump from the daily $2 workers used to earn. They’re also the ones we tend to forget when shit hits the fan. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Southeast in 2005, thousands of incarcerated people were left to ride out the storm, facing days without power and sufficient food and water.
The choice to put mostly black and brown bodies to work to profit is as American as apple pie. However, this latest fucked-up COVID-19 news reminds us just how fucked up everything is. While New York is employing incarcerated people to help combat the crisis without offering them adequate protections, hard-hit Italy is seeing riots break out in prisons. Six people, including guards and incarcerated people, have died as a result. This is our mad, mad world.