New York State

How New York uses prison labor

Prisoners don’t just make hand sanitizer – they also dig graves.

The new New York state hand sanitizer produced by prison labor.

The new New York state hand sanitizer produced by prison labor. Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a line of antiseptic and sanitizing products made by New York state, in an effort to combat price gouging on those products amidst growing fears of the coronavirus. However, many were quick to point out that the products were made by Corcraft, a state-owned company that utilizes state prison labor to make their products, a practice opposed by some on the left as exploitative.

While some may have been shocked to learn that the state’s disinfectants were made by prisoners making an average of 65 cents an hour, this is hardly a new development. Corcraft has been supplying the state with cleaning products, license plates, furniture and office supplies for years – and state law actually mandates that local governments purchase products from them. Operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the company pays prisoners as little as 16 cents per hour and as much as $1.30/hour as a type of productivity bonus. The company makes about $50 million in sales, annually. 

“A central part of prison rehabilitation is job training and skill development, and this is part of that existing program that’s been in place for years,” Rich Azzopardi, one of Cuomo’s senior aides, said in response to criticism.

Human rights activists, however, have called this type of work “slave labor” because of the paltry wages paid to prison laborers. While state lawmakers have attempted to raise state prisoners’ salaries in recent years they have largely remained the same since 1993. The state is able to pay such low hourly rates due to a major legal loophole in the 13th Amendment which outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Prisoners, however, have been working for the state for years and in more unpleasant roles than manufacturing life-saving cleaning products. For example, should the coronavirus cause an unusually large number of fatalities, New York City’s Rikers Island inmates would have the unfortunate task of digging graves to meet the death toll – a job the city’s Department of Correction has overseen for about 150 years. Rikers Island detainees will also be responsible for disinfecting their own prisons facilities at a rate of $1 to $2 per hour. 

Using prisoners to do the dirty work during emergencies is far from unheard of, even if it does strike some as cruel or unusual. In 2018, California enlisted the help of its inmates to combat its deadliest wildfire on record for $2 a day, plus $1 an hour while actually fighting fires. Inmates in Alaska have received disaster assistance training and inmates in Louisiana have helped assist with flood preparations in anticipation of hurricanes and flooding. Sadly, while prisoners have often assisted local governments in times of need throughout the country, they tend to bear the brunt of the damage caused by natural disasters. 

Even now, inmates producing the state’s sanitizer probably won’t be able to use it themselves, since they’re prohibited from using any products that contain alcohol. “The same individuals who produce this product should not be prohibited from using it,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement