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  • Society of Bioethics and Medicine

PRISON LABOR IN THE ERA OF CORONAVIRUS

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

By - Elizabeth Badalov, Edited By - Melissa-Maria Kulaprathazhe April 14, 2020


“Do you have Purell?” 


I asked the pharmacist behind the counter of the fourth drugstore I visited that day. He could not stop himself from laughing at my question, shaking his head in defeat and gesturing toward the shelves that have been swept empty by panicked New Yorkers. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the state, we are reassured that we will not be left without resources—resources that are free of charge but come with a greater cost. 


The shortage of hand sanitizer, says governor Andrew Cuomo, will be remedied by the labor of incarcerated individuals at the Great Meadows Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. You feel relieved that you will not have to shell out a few hundred dollars to have some hand sanitizer shipped overnight to your home. Like you, many other Americans are kept in the dark about the true implications of this “stress-relieving” news. 


The state government estimates the production of 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer each week, to be distributed free of charge to state-run entities like schools, hospitals, and municipal offices. On one hand, it is comforting to know that essential resources like hand sanitizer are being mass produced and distributed to locations where they are desperately needed. On the other, incarcerated individuals are being paid $0.65 cents an hour or less to make this happen. This wage is miles below the state minimum; nowhere near enough to sustain a humane life within a maximum-security prison. Soap is listed at $0.95 and toilet paper at $5.30 per pack. A copayment of $7.00 is legally required for an incarcerated person to visit a doctor. This exploitation of underpaid prison labor to save the state money as the market becomes increasingly unstable pushes the boundaries of ethical treatment of incarcerated individuals, and government officials are making use of the public health crisis to justify their decisions.


The situation becomes even more problematic upon  considering that the incarcerated individuals themselves will not be allowed to use the hand sanitizer that they themselves have produced for the sake of the hygiene and well-being of others. The “NYS Clean” hand sanitizer being produced is 75% alcohol, the volume recommended by the CDC for being the most effective. For a consumer, this is gold. For the individual manufacturer, living as an inmate in a maximum-security prison, it is contraband. 


The hand sanitizer is being produced to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but the health and well-being of the incarcerated individuals is an afterthought, if a thought at all. Prisons and jails are prime hotspots for the proliferation of viruses and other contagious microbes, complete with systematically inadequate healthcare and a deficit of appropriate hygiene products. 


The decision to rely on the labor of incarcerated individuals for the production of hygienic products for the general public sheds light on the discrepancy between the measures being taken to preserve the health of people inside correctional facilities and those outside them. In addition, it raises important subjects for debate, like what should an incarcerated individual’s wage look like? Is it ethical to withhold hygienic products from people living at higher risk for contagion on account of the rules of contraband? How exactly are our standards and social norms affected in times of global public health crises? All of these questions deserve serious discussion even in the absence of a pandemic, and  Governor Cuomo’s decision has provided the platform for starting this conversation—so let’s voice our concerns. 




Reference(s)

Corrigan, H. (2020, March 10). Incarcerated People Tasked to Make Hand Sanitizer to Fight Coronavirus are Banned from Using it Themselves. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1815496/ny-forces-prisoners-to-make-hand-sanitizer-to-fight-coronavirus/

Wozniak, M. (2020, March 11). Prisoners Make Hand Sanitizer For New York State; Inmate Advocates Compare It To Slavery. Retrieved from https://wskg.org/news/prisoners-make-hand-sanitizer-for-new-york-state-inmate-advocates-compare-it-to-slavery/


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