coronavirus

Sanitizer Squeezed From State Prison Labor Amplifies Calls to Hike Paltry Pay

Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds up a bottle of free New York State hand sanitizer, March 9, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds up a bottle of free New York State hand sanitizer, March 9, 2020. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

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New York’s prisoner work program, which helped produce an emergency supply of hand sanitizer, has generated more than $340 million in revenue for the state since 2010 while paying prisoners an average of 65 cents an hour, records show.

The prisoners produce license plates and an array of other items, including office furniture and trash bins, while working for Corcraft, a division of the state Department of Corrections.

The state employs a labor force of approximately 1,820 prisoners to make all of Corcraft’s products. Pay starts at 16 cents an hour and can rise up to $1.30, based on productivity incentives.

The prisoners have not gotten a raise since 1992 and were paid a total of $1.6 million in 2017, the last year for which records are available.

That has led to demands for a pay raise, including a bill pending in the state Legislature.

The Legal Aid Society, which represents many prisoners employed by Corcraft, called the financial arrangement “unconscionable.”

“Year after year, Corcraft continues to pay incarcerated workers pennies on the dollar for manufacturing products and performing services,” said Legal Aid’s statement.

During a news conference on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the $6.10 per gallon hand sanitizer — recently produced by a team of 98 prisoners to help deal with coronavirus-related shortages.

A day later, the cleaner was being distributed to places like the Ronald McDonald House.

An ‘Emergency’ Job

Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the production of hand sanitizer by state prisoners, citing the lack of assistance from the federal government in fending off coronavirus.

“In an emergency, I’m not going to be critical of the state for finding a way to produce hand sanitizer quicker,” he told NY1’s Errol Louis on “Inside City Hall” Monday. But he also acknowledged room for improvement. “As a bigger question of folks who are incarcerated, they should be paid for their work as any other worker is.”

City inmates, under de Blasio’s control, are paid between 28 cents to $1 an hour, according to a 2017 department directive. Minimum wage in New York City is $15 an hour.

Under state law, Corcraft can only sell products — typically at below-market prices — to public entities and charitable organizations. That’s in large part so it does not hurt private competitors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would provide free hand sanitizer, March 9, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would provide free hand sanitizer, March 9, 2020. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Corcraft is designated as a “preferred source,” meaning that government agencies do not need to evaluate its offerings against bids from competing vendors.

The City of New York is one of Corcraft’s biggest customers, spending $74 million on supplies  since 2013, state records show. The city buys everything from restraint desks to secure young inmates to desks and office furniture used by cops and other city workers.

The proceeds from the purchases go into the state’s general fund.

Prison officials say the program is not designed to generate money, and that it costs millions to pay for correction officers to guard the people in the program and civilian staff. The state Department of Corrections declined to detail its overall operating costs.

Push to Raise Wages

Low prisoner wages have long been a matter of contention.

The Attica prison uprising in 1971 was preceded by a strike in the metal shop, where inmates were earning less than a quarter a day.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) has proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage for state prisoners to $3 an hour. A similar bill stalled last legislative session.

Cuomo has said he supports the current measure, but he has refused to take executive action to change the payscale.

Prisoner advocates have long urged state lawmakers to boost the pay rate.

“If it was an appropriate wage in 1992, that can’t be appropriate by definition today,” said Jack Beck, a former official at the Correctional Association, one of the nation’s oldest inmate advocacy organizations.

The inmates typically use the pay to buy food and basic hygiene items, like soap and shampoo, from the commissary, he said. “All the commissary prices have increased since 1992 due to inflation,” Beck said.

Paying prisoners more money would give those released a better chance to stay out of trouble, prisoner advocates say.

“Incarcerated New Yorkers, their families, and their victims all suffer gravely while the state benefits handsomely,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a multi-state nonprofit “dedicated to dismantling the prison industry.”

“It’s time, today, that New York close the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment that allows slavery to persist in our prisons and jails,” she added, “and pay incarcerated workers like all other workers because labor is labor.”

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