At a press conference to update the public on the COVID-19 epidemic this morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had some "good news": New York State was producing its own line of powerful hand sanitizer to counter the price-gouging that some retailers are engaging in.
"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," Cuomo said, explaining that NYS Clean is 75 percent alcohol—well above Purell's 70 percent, and the 65 percent recommended by the CDC and WHO.
"Corcraft, actually, is making it for the state. 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," the governor said.
Corcraft is the brand name for the Division of Correctional Industries, a state-owned company operated by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs New York's prisons. Around 2,100 people incarcerated by New York state work for Corcraft. The governor's top assistant, Melissa DeRosa, confirmed that the hand sanitizer was being produced at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Washington County. According to DOCCS, 98 incarcerated New Yorkers are working to make the hand sanitizer.
Prisoners earn as little as 16 cents/hour, and as much as $1.30/hour through productivity bonuses; in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the average wage was 65 cents/hour. The state minimum wage ranges from $15/hour in New York City to $11.80/hour upstate.
New York's prison labor generates around $50 million in annual sales, mostly to local governments. All of Corcraft's revenues go to the state general fund.
The subject of the rock-bottom wages paid to prisoners came up this past summer, when the state Department of Motor Vehicles announced that they'd be rolling out new license plates, which are also made by Corcraft. Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie sponsored "the prison minimum wage act," which would raise the minimum wage for Corcraft workers to $3/hour. The bill failed to pass last year.
In an email, Senator Myrie told Gothamist that he and the Assembly sponsor, Nick Perry, are in the process of amending the legislation.
"We were unsuccessful last session but the Governor and several editorial boards have expressed support for increasing the wages, so I'm hoping that with a renewed focus on the work the incarcerated do—in this instance, combating a public health crisis—will give us the momentum we need."
Last year, Governor Cuomo said that he'd support raising the wages of Corcraft workers, but declined to offer any specifics. A spokesperson for Cuomo referred us to that statement.
The last time New York inmates received a raise, it was from Cuomo's father, Governor Mario Cuomo, in 1993.
Senator Myrie said that while he applauded Cuomo's quick action against price gouging, he was "deeply concerned" about Corcraft's role. "Hand sanitizer shouldn't cost $50 and workers correcting that injustice shouldn't be paid 50 cents an hour. We can change that right now if we desired. Let's get it done," he said.
It's not entirely clear how DOCCS is preparing New York's prisons to handle the spread of COVID-19. Jails and prisons are notoriously dirty places, and washing one's hands can be difficult. On Friday, DOCCS sent out a press release noting that visitors to New York prisons will be screened and those who have visited affected countries may be denied entry. Around 50,000 people are held in New York state prisons, while another 27,000 and 11,000 are in local jails and federal prisons, respectively.
DOCCS said that each prison has an emergency control plan that is reviewed annually, and that the agency has supplies, equipment, and medical staff to dispatch to facilities that may be affected.
Governor Cuomo said that the NYS Clean hand sanitizer would be distributed free of cost to state agencies, including prisons. In a statement, the governor's office said that "distribution will be prioritized by the most impacted and high risk communities, including the New Rochelle community."
[UPDATE / 4:05 p.m.] According to a DOCCS handbook for visitors of New York's prisons issued in December of 2019, inmates are not allowed to receive the kind of hand sanitizer produced by Corcraft because it contains alcohol.
On page 49, under the heading, "TOILET ARTICLES/COSMETICS General Restrictions," the handbook states, "No item may be received which lists alcohol as an ingredient."
DOCCS and the Governor's Office have not immediately responded to our request for comment.
"This is nothing less than slave labor and it must end," two Legal Aid Society attorneys, Tina Luongo and Adriene Holder, said in a joint statement. "Albany must pay these individuals the minimum wage and lawmakers must legislate to eradicate forced labor across our state for good."
They added, "It would be even more shocking if prisons and jails were to deem this Corcraft product ‘contraband’ and deprive incarcerated New Yorkers from possessing effective hand sanitizer because of the alcohol content. The same individuals who produce this product should not be prohibited from using it.”