It’s an example of how we treat people in prisons like they’re less worth saving or protecting from harm and illness than those on the outside, Monifa Bandele, sitting member of the leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives, and senior vice president at MomsRising. org, which has been organizing around incarceration for years explains. “We're really outraged that instead of coming out with a plan on how to make sure that the safety and health of incarcerated loved ones is prioritized and extended to them during this pandemic, plans were introduced to exploit them,” says Bandele. “This also just really hits home how mass incarceration, which affects mostly black and brown people in this country, is like an extension of the slave industrial complex,” she adds.
With national shortages of hand sanitizer in the face of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus 2019, also known as COVID-19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a “fix” for the state — having people in prison make 100,000 gallons of it each week to be distributed to [New Yorkers free of charge], with pay for them set by the state’s program for workers in prison, at an average of 65 cents per hour, according to records reviewed by The City. ([Allure has reached out to Governor Cuomo for comment and has not yet heard back.
The hand sanitizer, which is distributed by Corcraft, a company in New York state known for using prison labor, might be made by people in prison, but because it’s considered contraband in many prisons because of its high alcohol content, incarcerated people can’t even use any themselves to safeguard against coronavirus or other illness.
Just six days after Cuomo's announcement, Department of Corrections staffers in New York have tested positive for coronavirus and have potentially infected people who are incarcerated, and it’s likely the same is happening in other prisons and jails across the country. “[Incarcerated people] are, you know, property of the state according to the state, and they are not afforded any of the same rights, or even looked at as like full human beings and that becomes more evident during times of disaster and crises like this,” says Nwanne.
Lisa Schreibersdorf, founder and executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, tells Allure that the conditions at prisons in New York right now are dire. “At Rikers Island, visitors and staff describe empty hand sanitizer stations, and those incarcerated, for the most part pre-trial, report that many cell sinks are broken and they have received no information on either coronavirus prevention or common symptoms to watch out for,” says Schreibersdorf.
While public defenders like Schreibersdorf and advocates with grassroots organizations are spreading information about what’s wrong with using the labor of incarcerated people, organizers who work through initiatives like Survived and Punished New York have taken it upon themselves to raise funds to buy soap for jails and prisons across New York state.
And because advocates have been working with Cuomo and the New York government to change the way incarcerated people are treated in emergencies, Bandele says it’s all the more disappointing to see a first response like the hand sanitizer fix that Cuomo came up with, exploiting incarcerated people.
Staff at prisons are also allowed to bring their own sanitizer, and the department is following the recommendations of the NYC Department of Health which states that hand sanitizer is only recommended if there is no access to soap and water. "People should join efforts to help inside and pressure the city to free everyone inside the jails.
Although people in prisons are the ones making hand sanitizer for those of us out here to stay safe, according to groups like these in touch with people on the inside, there’s reportedly a shortage of soap — and prisons are already extremely unhygienic and ripe with germs and unsuitable conditions to begin with, even without a pandemic like coronavirus.
When asked to comment on the current situation at Rikers and in prisons in New York, Jason Kersten, the press secretary for the Department of Correction (DOC) responded, “We are committed to ensuring that all people who live and work in our facilities remain safe and healthy, and we are following Health Department guidelines when it comes to taking appropriate measures to prevent coronavirus among our workforce and those in our care.
The people making the hand sanitizer can't even use it themselves. https://t.co/x3Dr6vQrwv— Allure (@Allure_magazine) March 17, 2020