Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York would be producing its own hand-sanitizer called “NYS Clean.” He explained that the new hand-sanitizer would be “made” by Corcraft which is the name for New York’s prison industries. But according to a report published today by Vice, prison inmates aren’t “making” the sanitizer so much as putting the stuff, which is made elsewhere, into jugs and bottles.
According to a NYSDOCCS spokesperson, the hand sanitizer itself is being produced by an outside vendor he would not name; the Great Meadow Facility is only bottling and labeling it. Neither NYSDOCCS nor the governor’s office would respond to repeated questions about why the state would need to use prison labor to bottle hand sanitizer, nor did the governor’s office respond to questions about Cuomo’s pitch that this was a cheaper, more effective option than buying bottled hand sanitizer outright.
According to an inmate who spoke to VICE under the condition of anonymity, who we’ll call Michael, rollout of the hand sanitizer initiative in Great Meadow began on March 7. (The sanitizer is also being handled at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York.) That was when he said that he and a group of randomly chosen volunteers were offered the chance to work in what used to be the prison’s soap shop…
The work, according to Michael, is relatively simple. He stands along an assembly line, turns a nozzle, and uses a hose to squirt sanitizer into gallon-sized bottles. He said other employees also stand or sit along the line, filling bottles of various sizes, but that the focus largely remains on filling the gallon-sized containers. Before, during, and after every shift, the workers are searched to ensure they do not bring anything into the workroom or take any sanitizer, which they are not even allowed to touch, with them when they leave.
Looking back at his big announcement two weeks ago, Cuomo did say, “Corcraft makes glass cleaner, floor cleaner, degreasers, laundry detergent, vehicle fluids, hand cleaner, and now they make hand sanitizer with alcohol.” But I’m guessing the inmates don’t actually make any of that other stuff either. They are just packaging pre-made chemicals for sale.
Hand sanitizer is mostly alcohol, which is why in the past week or two you’ve probably seen reports about various distilleries around the country offering to produce it instead of their usual beverage. In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that no one would be running a distillery in a prison. That said, I do think Cuomo certainly gave the impression that’s what was happening. Here’s how one local channel reported the announcement at the time:
Gov. Cuomo announced today that New York State is producing hand sanitizer. The governor says it is cheaper to make ourselves than purchase it. He says they will give it to schools, jails, government agencies, etc. If price gouging continues, Cuomo says they will start selling it pic.twitter.com/NtLSU54Km5
— WGRZ (@WGRZ) March 9, 2020
Cheaper to make it than to buy it? But it sounds like he’s just buying it in bulk and using prison labor to package it.
One thing Cuomo was clear about was that the stuff was being “made” in New York. So if it turns out this is actually being made in another state that would be potentially embarrassing.
Does any of this matter in the midst of a crisis? Yes and no. On the one hand providing a source of cheap hand sanitizer seems like a good thing. On the other hand, the presentation of all of this was such a spectacle, complete with a curtain being pulled back and Cuomo going on about the lovely floral smell. You can’t ignore the fact this was about politics as well as public health.
And it worked. Cuomo is getting a lot of positive attention right now for his daily coronavirus briefings. As Jazz pointed out, there are even rumblings about what a great nominee he would make (in place of Joe Biden). Anything that tarnishes Cuomo’s halo right now might put a damper on all of that. So if, for instance, we find out that New York’s hand sanitizer is actually being trucked in from Jersey, I think he takes a hit to his reputation. We don’t know that’s the case at this point but now I’m curious.
Here are some highlights from the big hand-sanitizer announcement two weeks ago. If you want to see the full press conference from that day, it’s here.