The Exploitation of Prisoners During Crisis

As the coronavirus spreads across the state, New York is shifting the responsibility of combating the outbreak onto incarcerated people and is paying them around 60 cents an hour to do it.

Asha Ramachandran, Deputy Opinion Editor

New York State is in the middle of a grave public health crisis, with the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. The way that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has resorted to managing the outbreak by exploiting the labor of incarcerated people, who are being paid $0.62 cents an hour to produce hand sanitizer and planning for people incarcerated at Rikers Island to dig graves for the corpses of the infected, if it comes to that.

New York’s planned response reveals systematic problems deep-rooted in how the state functions in response to a crisis, something not unique to New York. In California, when deadly wildfires were spreading across the state, the state paid incarcerated people $1 an hour to fight the fires and put themselves in extreme danger. 

There is a real need for cheap hand sanitizer made widely available in the state, thanks to price gouging by corporations and the product being extremely low-stock. 

Incarcerated people themselves, however, are far more at risk than the general population, due to low resources and poor, overcrowded conditions. They themselves will not even be able to purchase the hand sanitizer that they have made, because the high alcohol content makes it official contraband. For salaries under one dollar and with other necessities to buy, even hand and body soap are unaffordable, especially for elderly and sick incarcerated people who lack access to basic functioning healthcare facilities. Around the country, private healthcare companies who are contracted by prisons from Florida to Arizona have treated cancer patients with Tylenol in lieu of chemotherapy. Those individuals later died due to the gross negligence of the prison system. 

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Incarcerated people are more likely to have conditions like asthma or heart disease, which makes them significantly more susceptible to infection from COVID-19. These people are in urgent need of resources and healthcare measures including free access to hand sanitizer, soap, masks, testing kits, doctor visits, etc. Given the overcrowded conditions, the state should consider temporarily freeing incarcerated people as it manages the viral outbreak and the significant potential for its spread within prisons. Even in Iran — a country the West largely considers tyrannical and repressive — 54,000 prisoners who tested negative for the virus were temporarily released on bail. 

The U.S. has the highest incarcerated population in the world — per capita and purely by numbers — and the conditions at the prisons they are held in are abysmal. Gross violations of human rights occur on the daily. Now, New York State wants to exploit incarcerated people even more by using their cheap labor to combat a deadly pandemic? While it is unsurprising, given the deep roots of the prison-industrial complex in this country, this response by Governor Cuomo is beyond unacceptable and puts incarcerated people at increased risk. 

Having a virtually enslaved population that is already more susceptible to infection be shipped from Rikers Island to a remote location to dig mass graves and bury coronavirus victims —

the outrageousness of this plan can’t even be put into words. It is not the first time the city has done something like this, though. During the 90s, the bodies of AIDS victims, who were predominantly poor and homeless, were sent to the same remote island to be buried in mass unmarked graves. According to a 2008 report, around 30% of people who die in New York City end up on Hart Island, buried by prisoners who paid $1 per hour. Now, these same hyper-exploited individuals could be digging mass graves for unembalmed bodies infected with a deadly disease, while they themselves have little to no protection. The sheer injustice of the state’s plan is incomprehensible.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]

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