New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that the state had found a way to counteract price gouging on hand sanitizer amid the COVID-19 outbreak: by deploying cheap prison labor. Incarcerated people will be producing 100,000 gallons of the disinfectant, branded as “NYS Clean hand sanitizer,” to be distributed to government agencies, prisons, public transportation systems, and schools for free. “This is a superior product to products now on the market,” Cuomo said in a briefing, adding that the state’s sanitizer has a “very nice floral bouquet” that includes hints of lilac, tulip, and hydrangea. The sanitizer will also contain 75 percent alcohol and comes in a variety of differently sized containers; experts recommend that people use products that have at least 60 percent.
Incarcerated people at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the state’s Washington County, will be making the sanitizer. Corcraft, New York’s prison-run business, is handling the production. According to Cuomo, Corcraft already manufactures fluids like glass cleaner and laundry detergent, so it will be fairly easy to transition to hand sanitizer. The business should be able to make a 1-gallon bottle for $6.10, a 7-ounce for $1.12, and a travel-size for 84 cents. Corcraft pays its workers an average of 65 cents per hour and as little as 16 cents per hour. Some local lawmakers have been trying to raise those wages to a minimum of $3 per hour, but the measure failed to pass in 2019.
Hand sanitizer isn’t the only way the state plans to rely on its incarcerated population if the coronavirus outbreak becomes more severe. The Daily Beast also reported that New York City’s “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan For Managing In- and Out-of-Hospital Deaths,” which was released in 2008, set up measures to have people incarcerated at the Rikers Island jail complex transported to Hart Island, where they would dig graves for those who die in cases of serious mass illness. The governor’s office did not respond to Slate’s inquiry about the use of prison labor to address the coronavirus.
Normally, hand sanitizer is considered contraband in prisons because of the high alcohol content. That’s partly why prisons are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. A former chief medical officer for Rikers Island told the Marshall Project that many prisons and jails have inadequate means to prevent infections since spaces are often dirty, the bathrooms are few and may not have functioning sinks or soap, medical staff is limited, and people are crammed in close quarters. No prisons in the U.S. currently have medical kits for COVID-19 testing.
New York currently has more than 140 confirmed cases of the virus, 98 of which are in the state’s southeastern Westchester County. There are also 19 cases in New York City and 17 in Nassau County. Eight people are currently in the hospital for treatment. Cuomo has predicted that some New York schools will have to close for a number of weeks—the suburb of Scarsdale is currently closing its schools until March 18—and has also criticized the federal government for alleged delays in approving coronavirus testing in private labs located in the state.
The sanitizer will not be available to the general public initially, though the government may eventually start selling it if the prices on the open market continue to be unreasonably high. “To Purell, and Mr. Amazon, and Mr. eBay, if you continue the price gouging, we will introduce our product, which is superior to your product,” said Cuomo. “And you don’t even have the floral bouquet.”