Unclean Labor: PPE, Prisoners and the Pandemic

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Unclean labor: PPE, Prisoners and the Pandemic

By Andrea Guardiola

The United States was unprepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that we had plenty of warning. Instead of buying supplies from ethical providers or other countries, many states have turned to prison labor to deal with shortages and soaring prices for basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Prisoners have been producing masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, and more for remarkably low wages. 

Prison labor is exploitative all on its own outside of a pandemic. However, given that the conditions of prison are highly conducive to incarcerated people catching and spreading COVID-19, this practice is made even crueler and more dangerous. Considering prisoners are not sufficiently protected from the virus, having these workers risk their lives for pennies to manufacture protection for other people adds insult to injury. 

New York employed incarcerated people at Rikers Island to dig mass graves for COVID-19 victims for six dollars an hour. Many of these people were being detained pre-trial, meaning a large number of unconvicted people were being exploited by the state to supply essential services. In Texas, inmates earn no wages for making protective equipment such as masks and gowns for first responders.

The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) is a business responsible for contracting the labor of incarcerated people in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) facilities. CALPIA contracts incarcerated labor in CDCR facilities to make hand sanitizer and masks. CALPIA generates a profit of approximately 80 cents per mask from this practice by “selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of masks and sanitizer to state government agencies.” 

Corporations in the business of contracting prison labor can only remain operational at the expense of incarcerated people, and CALPIA is no exception. While CDCR staff and incarcerated people are allowed to use the sanitizer, this does not justify underpaying prisoners and making a profit at their expense. 

Paying people inadequate wages to do something essential is exploitive. This is true not only because workers deserve to be compensated for their labor but also because prisoners are already economically vulnerable. Cheating them out of fair wages exacerbates that vulnerability. Prisoners use marginal wages earned from prison labor not only for necessities while incarcerated (phone calls, tampons and other hygiene products, for example) but also for legal fines and general cost of living post release. Incarcerated people working in the CALPIA system get 40% of their already meager wages35 cent to one dollar per hour—taken out of their paycheck for court ordered restitution and fees. 

The general manager of CALPIA, Scott Walker, boasted that “[f]rom start to finish, this process took two weeks to deliver, which is remarkable considering it could take many months. The efficiency of mask and sanitizer production Walker brags about means prisoners were probably overworked and underpaid. They can’t unionize for better pay or working conditions, and have no other means of securing these benefits. .  

CALPIA claims that all work is optional for prisoners. However, incarcerated people often have too many financial obligations in and out of prison to give up any kind of work or pay.

 “With no savings, how can people possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support, and supervision fees once released?” reads the Prison Policy Initiative.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison remains high while incarcerated people make the supplies to help people outside prisons stay safe from the virus. Non-violent and low-risk inmates were set to be released to slow the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, however, many were never released, meaning that correctional facilities remained overcrowded

When the pandemic started, hand sanitizer prices surged. New York governor Andrew Cuomo “solved” the issue by having prisoners make sanitizer for 65 cents an hour. However, due to the high alcohol content of the hand sanitizer, it is unclear whether these sanitizers will qualify as contraband in New York. 

California State Prison in Los Angeles is also underpaying incarcerated people to make hand sanitizer. As of early May, 90 inmates at the facility producing sanitizer in LA have tested positive for COVID-19. This is beyond exploitative. Ignoring the danger faced by incarcerated people in prisons while having them make protection for others is risking and devaluing their lives.  

These exploitative practices are exacerbated by the sins of the prison industrial complex. The fact that the prisons in the US are disproportionately composed of Black people means this practice is yet another instance in United States history in which Black people are expected to literally build this country for almost nothing in return. Even though most of the PPE being produced by prisoners is for first responders, and even for prison staff and inmates, profiting off of these prisoners is corrupt, especially during a pandemic. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are looking for ethically sourced PPE, there are several Black-owned businesses making and selling masks on Etsy.]

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