By Jon Campbell, New York State Team
ALBANY – What do you do when fear over the new coronavirus leads to a shortage of hand sanitizer?
If you're the state of New York, you make it yourself. Or rather, you have your prisoners do it.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday the state had begun producing its own line of hand sanitizer, known as NYS Clean. The state will distribute the products to schools, local governments, prisons and other public entities free of charge.
The low price of making the sanitizer in house — $6.10 a gallon — will allow the state and local governments to save big, particularly when a coronavirus-fueled run on the product has led to rising prices if you're even able to find it at all.
But it's the way the state is containing its costs that has some lawmakers and advocacy groups alarmed: By paying prisoners as little as 16 cents an hour to make it.
"There is price gouging happening across the state and we are in a public-health crisis, so I do applaud the governor for acting very quickly," said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn. "But I am incredibly concerned that we're using a company that pays its workers sweat-shop wages."
NYS Clean made by Corcraft
NYS Clean is being produced by Corcraft, a division of the state prison system that users inmate labor to manufacture products to sell primarily to state and local government agencies.
At 13 prisons across New York, Corcraft produces a wide range of products, from metal products at Albion to mattresses and pillows at Eastern to textiles at Clinton and Coxsackie.
The program generates tens of millions of dollars in sales, in part because it is considered a "preferred source" provider, meaning state agencies can purchase goods from Corcraft without putting out a contract for bid.
Corcraft employees — all inmates in state prison — are paid a starting wage of 16 cents per hour and a maximum wage of 65 cents per hour, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Service.
They can also earn a bonus of up to $1.30 a day for productivity.
The hand sanitizer is being produced at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Comstack, Washington County. It will only be distributed for free to public entities and coronavirus hotspots; It will not be offered for sale, according to Cuomo's office.
Already, inmates at Great Meadow were making various cleaning solutions for janitors and chemicals for vehicle maintenance. Making hand sanitizer at a time of public-health concern was a natural step, Cuomo said Monday.
Corcraft will be able to make 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week, according to Cuomo.
"Corcraft makes glass cleaner, floor cleaners, degreasers, laundry detergent, vehicle fluids, hand cleaner, and now they make hand sanitizer with alcohol," he said.
Reform advocates have been critical
New York's prison-labor system has long been criticized by reform advocates, who note the hourly wage hasn't risen for state inmates since Cuomo's father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, was in office in the early 1990s.
Last year, Myrie and Assemblyman Nick Perry, D-Brooklyn, sponsored a bill that would have given working inmates a significant raise, setting a minimum wage of at least $3 an hour.
The bill was never put to a vote, though Myrie said he's hopeful the renewed attention being paid to the prison-labor program could get it over the finish line this year.
"If you are asking the incarcerated to save the public from this health crisis, give them the dignity of paying a fair wage," he said.
In a tweet, Perry called the prison-labor system a "last vestige of slavery."
Republicans have criticized raise proposal
Many Republican lawmakers have pushed back against the proposal, arguing the state has bigger budgetary concerns than offering prisoners a raise.
"Democrat’s seek a PAY RAISE for inmates at a time when New Yorkers face a multi-billion dollar deficit," Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Endwell, Broome County, tweeted as Cuomo and lawmakers negotiated a budget last year. "What planet do we live on ?"
Cuomo himself pledged support for an inmate pay raise last August, which came as his administration faced criticism for a since-scrapped plan to force New York drivers with aging license plates to pay for new ones.
License plates are made by Corcraft employees at the Auburn Correctional Facility.
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman and senior adviser, defended the state's decision to use Corcraft to produce hand sanitizer.
“A central part of prison rehabilitation is job training and skill development, and this is part of that existing program that’s existed for years," he said in a statement.
In a joint statement, Tina Luongo and Adriene Holder — top attorneys for The Legal Aid Society, a New York City-based organization that provides legal representation to the indigent — called on the state to pass a bill requiring prisoners to be paid the minimum wage.
"This is nothing less than slave labor and it must end," they said.