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As Coronavirus Spreads, New York Governor Exploits Prison Labor to Produce Hand Sanitizer

On March 9, with fears of coronavirus spreading, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York held a press conference to announce the debut of a new hand sanitizer called NYS Clean. It will be produced by state prisoners paid approximately 16 cents per hour through CorCraft Products, a division of Correctional Industries.

The prison-based manufacturer uses prison labor to produce myriad products — mattresses, pillows, textiles, glass cleaners, floor cleaners, degreasers, laundry detergents and other consumer and industrial products. Cuomo described NYS Clean’s fragrance to be “like a floral bouquet” as he pulled back a curtain at the press conference to reveal plastic bottles filled with the new product.

“New York can make a one-gallon bottle for $6.10 and a seven-ounce bottle for $1.12 which is much cheaper than the open market,” Cuomo said during the product launch.

Projections released during the press conference suggested that prisoners could generate about 100,000 gallons of the product per day. The announcement was made in the wake of shortages of hand sanitizers and price-gouging scams. One online seller advertised a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for $704.

Critics questioned whether New York was exploiting prisoners in a similar manner. “There is price gouging happening across the state in a public-health crisis, so I applauded the governor for acting very quickly,” said state Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, “but I am incredibly concerned that we’re using a company that pays its workers sweat-shop wages.”

Corrections Industries reported that it pays its inmate labor between 16 cents and 65 cents per hour, with the possibility of a bonus of up to $1.30 based on productivity.

Prison reform advocates in New York criticize the state, noting that hourly wages have not risen since the Governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, held office in the early 1990s. “If you are asking the incarcerated to save the public from this health crisis, give them the dignity of paying a fair wage,” Myrie said. Tina Luongo and Adrien Holder, top attorneys for the New York-based Legal Aid Society, said, “This is nothing less than slave labor and it must end.”

CorCraft currently generates tens of millions of dollars in sales and is a “preferred source” in New York. That means that any state agency may purchase products from that source without putting out a contract for bid. New York Assemblyman Nick Perry called the prison labor system a “last vestige of slavery.”