The Coronavirus crisis has moved the governor of New York to approve prison labor to help a private company sell more hand sanitizer. There are many ethical considerations in this present circumstance but what’s evident is that Black companies who need additional capacity to fulfill government contracts certainly don’t get these types of deals. A public health crisis brought on this action and perhaps it’s appropriate. The question remains, however, whether the crisis of unemployment in Black communities warrants similar government action.
Hand sanitizer is still in short supply (although we suggest buying from these Black owned companies) and so it’s appropriate that, during a public health crisis, government would take action to ensure proper supply to hospitals and other agencies in desperate need. Price gouging, however, was a serious issue for governments and consumers looking to source the product. In response, on March 9, governor Andrew Cuomo announced a strategy to fight “egregious” price-gouging and produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer each week. The hand sanitizer would be distributed to schools, government agencies, prisons and the transit authority. It’s the sort of contract a Black owned company would kill for but likely wouldn’t have the capacity to fulfill. On the other hand, if they were given the benefit of cheap prison labor (for the purpose of addressing a public health crisis), however, perhaps a Black company could have stepped up.
Prisoners, according to reporting by Vice, are making 64 cents every hour on this special assignment, although they were promised $2 an hour. The prisoners, reportedly, aren’t actually making the product but simply taking existing product and rebottling it into packaging labeled “NYS Clean.” NYS Clean is a state brand produced by Corcraft, which is really just the public-facing name of New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Division of Industries. Many questions about this arrangement are left unanswered. For example, if prisoners are merely rebottling existing product, why wouldn’t the state simply buy the unnamed company’s product and distribute it as is? Why the need for rebottling and rebranding the product, in the first place? The more pressing issue, however, is how can Black owned companies get the same support?
Black unemployment has historically always doubled white unemployment. Is that crisis sufficient enough to justify radical interventions by the state? In some communities, Black male unemployment hovers around 50 percent. Is that sufficient enough to supplement the capacity of Black owned companies in those communities, so that they can fulfill larger government contracts? Desperate times call for desperate measures but unfortunately, the desperation of certain Black communities doesn’t register. States spend billions each year buying products from companies. Far too often, Black owned companies are left out and told they don’t have the capacity to get the contracts. This latest move by Andrew Cuomo has shown that it’s not about the size of the company but the degree to which government acknowledges crisis.