As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 proliferates, the good people of New York find themselves in want of an everyday hygiene product. They need hand sanitizer, but demand outstrips supply. Price-gougers have thus begun selling the product for outrageously inflated prices online, and that demands an official response from state officials. Governor Andrew Cuomo has accordingly waded into the mess. His solution? New York state-branded hand sanitizer. “We are problem solvers,” Cuomo said at a Monday morning press conference. “And there is price gouging on hand sanitizer and a high demand for hand sanitizer. What do you do? Make your own hand sanitizer? Can you do that?”
Cuomo then demonstrated the product, and smelled it. “I detect lilac, hydrangea, tulips,” he said. Lovely!
The governor’s solution to price-gouging is not a bad one. Other states should consider similar solutions, as the federal government is obviously, woefully unequipped to deal with the pandemic on its hands. But there is a dark underside to Cuomo’s hand sanitizer. It was made by prison labor.
NYS Clean, as the state is calling its new hand sanitizer, was produced by Corcraft, described by Gothamist as “the ‘brand name’ for the Division of Correctional Industries.” Corcraft already oversees the production of license plates, pillows, soap dispensers, and other household products. For this work, inmates receive around 65 cents an hour — poverty wages for forced labor. NYS Clean might smell like hydrangeas to Cuomo, but it reeks of exploitation. The people who make NYS Clean can’t even use the product, as public defender Scott Hechinger pointed out on Twitter:
The production of hand sanitizer might not be the only way the state of New York exploits mass incarceration for its benefit. As Intelligencer previously reported, New York City’s contingency plan for a severe pandemic, with a mortality rate of 2.1 percent, also relies on prison labor. If the bodies really piled up, the city would send corpses over to Hart Island in the Long Island Sound. But someone would have to dig the graves, and for this work, the city plans to use inmates from Rikers Island. That outcome remains distant; the COVID-19 outbreak would have to become much more serious before anyone picked up a shovel on Hart Island. But the plan does demonstrate a callous lack of regard for the well-being of the human beings who inhabit the state’s prisons.
Whether disasters take the form of a pandemic, like COVID-19, or a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, they clarify a government’s priorities. The scramble to advance basic social welfare policies like paid sick leave is related to New York’s dependence on cheap, forced labor. Uniting them both is the same national tendency to value profit more than human life. Cuomo may have helped fix price-gouging, but he’s reinforced problems far bigger than his state.