On March 9, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a measure to fight “egregious” price-gouging: an initiative to produce 100,000 gallons of New York State-produced hand sanitizer every week, to be distributed for free to needy institutions like schools, government agencies, prisons, and the MTA.
“We are problem solvers, state of New York, Empire State, progressive capital of the nation,” Cuomo said during a press conference, before opening a navy curtain and literally unveiling jugs of the “NYS Clean”-branded sanitizer, “made conveniently by the state of New York.”
But according to workers at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York where the hand sanitizer is being “made,” as well as a spokesperson for the prison system, they are doing nothing more than taking existing hand sanitizer and rebottling it into packaging labeled "NYS Clean."
Cuomo bragged that the NYS hand sanitizer was “superior” due to its high alcohol content (75% to Purell’s 70%) and joked that it was even floral scented, like tulips and hydrangeas. He also touted its price as a major upside. “This is also much less expensive than anything the government could buy—a gallon bottle is $6.10, the 7-ounce bottle is $1.12 our cost, and then there’s a very small size… which is 84 cents. So it’s much cheaper for us to make it ourselves than to buy it on the open market.”
Cuomo claimed that the hand sanitizer would be produced by Corcraft, the public-facing brand name of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Division of Industries. “Corcraft makes glass cleaner, floor cleaner, degreasers, laundry detergent, vehicle fluids, hand cleaner, and now they make hand sanitizer with alcohol,” Cuomo told the audience.
But according to a NYSDOCCS spokesperson, the hand sanitizer itself is being produced by an outside vendor he would not name; the Great Meadow Facility is only bottling and labeling it. Neither NYSDOCCS nor the governor's office would respond to repeated questions about why the state would need to use prison labor to bottle hand sanitizer, nor did the governor's office respond to questions about Cuomo's pitch that this was a cheaper, more effective option than buying bottled hand sanitizer outright.
According to an inmate who spoke to VICE under the condition of anonymity, who we'll call Michael, rollout of the hand sanitizer initiative in Great Meadow began on March 7. (The sanitizer is also being handled at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York.) That was when he said that he and a group of randomly chosen volunteers were offered the chance to work in what used to be the prison’s soap shop.
Michael said people are bottling sanitizer 24 hours a day, in three eight-hour shifts, with extra hours available for anyone willing to take them on. “There's one guy who worked 116 hours in one week, and just stays there. They ask people if they want overtime, but a lot of people refuse it. It's not actually overtime, it's just more hours but you still get paid the same amount.”
The work, according to Michael, is relatively simple. He stands along an assembly line, turns a nozzle, and uses a hose to squirt sanitizer into gallon-sized bottles. He said other employees also stand or sit along the line, filling bottles of various sizes, but that the focus largely remains on filling the gallon-sized containers. Before, during, and after every shift, the workers are searched to ensure they do not bring anything into the workroom or take any sanitizer, which they are not even allowed to touch, with them when they leave.
Michael said he wears latex gloves and protective glasses while he fills gallon-sized bottles; workers filling the smaller containers are given yellow aprons, and remain seated while they work. He also said the workers have been instructed to bottle 6,000 gallons of the sanitizer, which an NYSDOCCS spokesperson told VICE is brought in by truck from an outside vendor, every shift.
The major draw of the job: a raise. According to Michael, the initial salary he and his fellow workers were offered was a whopping $2 an hour. That’s a veritable fortune in a facility like Great Meadow, where wages are spent almost exclusively on commissary items. For comparison, consider the fact that Cuomo failed to follow through on a pledge last year to back a minimum wage increase for incarcerated workers employed by Corcraft who were then making an average of 65 cents an hour. Michael said $2 an hour was a significant increase in wages for him (he previously worked in the prison hospital), and that subsequent walkbacks would still constitute a major raise.
The NYSDOCCS and governor's office both refused to answer questions about working conditions and pay disparities that inmates raised to VICE.
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The NYS Clean-brand hand sanitizer is cheap because prison labor is cheap. A 2017 Gothamist report compared to New York prison work to “slave labor” on the grounds of the low wages Corcraft pays, coupled with the fact that inmates can legally be compelled to work and punished if they refuse. A 1998 article from the New York Times cited Corcraft employees making 32 cents an hour to work at call centers or 37 cents an hour to push thousands of pounds of dough around bakeries; wages do not seem to have meaningfully shifted since, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, and inmates’ own accounts.
Michael said he and the other workers on the hand sanitizer initiative are exhausted. “We're completely overworked,” he told VICE. "They treat us like shit."
Michael and his fellow workers were all moved to a single block and work 8-hour shifts, 6 days a week, he said, but inmates who work non-day shifts are still expected to adhere to the prison’s regular daytime schedule. This means late-night shower excursions that keep workers from getting more than four hours of sleep a night, dinner served in the workshop at 3:30pm in the afternoon, unwanted disruptions to the routine that shapes so much of life while incarcerated.
“We don't really have too much time to do anything,” Michael said. “No time at all. We literally… our complete day is booked all the way.”
Scheduling conflicts also mean Michael has not been to the Great Meadow commissary in more than a month. “The commissary's only open from the morning time until like 3, but we're working at that time or we either gotta go to rec at that time,” he said. “Every time we tell them that, they're ‘Oh, we're gonna work on it, we haven't heard from anyone, we sent some emails, they haven't responded back to us.’”
Because of this, he said he and his fellow workers are unable to determine how much they’re actually getting paid. Normally, they’d be able to check their funds before making commissary purchases, prison diet staples like Pop-Tarts or ramen, or personal hygiene products like razors and soap. Now, less than a month of work under their belts means no monthly earnings report, which makes it impossible to fact check the myriad wage claims they’ve heard.
“I think originally [soap shop workers] were being paid 16 cents, plus 100% bonus which is like double the original pay, but now I think they told us yesterday that we'd be getting 32 cents plus 100% bonus which is like 64 cents every [hour],” Michael said. Although it’s far less than the $2/hour he said he was promised, the prospect of making 64 cents an hour is still an exciting one. “Getting 64 cents is actually really good,” he said. “I never got paid that much before doing any type of job like this.”
There’s also a precariousness to the employment: Michael said he’s seen multiple workers get fired (for infractions like wearing the wrong uniform or accidentally bringing a snack into the workroom) and replaced the same day, with a final indignity for canned inmates. “If we do anything, they'll fire us and then we'll have to move off the block,” he said. “They'll fire us that day, and then at the same time they'll move us to a different block that we wouldn't even want to go to, not even the block that we were originally on.”
Despite all the strictures and the ruse about the hand sanitizer production, the inmates still aren’t allowed to touch actual hand sanitizer, an especially stark fact given that advocates and experts alike have said incarcerated populations are at particularly high risk in the COVID-19 pandemic due to communal living conditions and poor in-facility sanitation.
Some state correctional facilities (including New York’s Riker’s Island) have slowly begun to release high-risk prisoners. A handful of Democratic senators, along with correctional officers at federal correctional facilities, have called on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to do the same. High-profile prisoners, including Michael Cohen and Teka$hi 6ix9ine, have already made headlines petitioning for their release to house arrest in order to escape the threat of illness.
In Yakima, Washington, a dozen inmates from the county jail actually made a break for it on Monday after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the state to shelter in place (as captured on video here). Abroad, increased restrictions on visitation rights and fears of COVID-19 have sparked unrest among prison populations, with riots in Italy and Colombia resulting in injuries and even deaths.
But in Great Meadow, the incarcerated people providing a vital resource to slowing the spread of COVID-19 are further stripped of their choices and resources in the face of a global pandemic, at the mercy of a system that makes them its last priority.
“They don't really tell us anything,” Michael said. “Everything is out of control… No one knows what’s going on. It's like they figure something out every day, something new.”
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