It is hard to watch Governor Cuomo’s newscasts on television because, as a New York Department of Corrections inmate, I know certain truths. Cuomo has mobilized many of us prisoners to make hand sanitizer for the state. I am one of them.
Is it wise or exploitative? My “soap shop” job is part of a difficult matrix of concepts. On the one hand, I am grateful to have the opportunity to work and contribute to the cause. On the other, I feel expendable and like a slave. But then again, I once committed a crime, so do I even have the right to complain about anything? You tell me.
Consider for yourself: I work a 6.5-hour shift, seven days a week in the “soap shop.” I am paid 64 cents per hour, which rounds to $4.16 per day as a wage. This sounds like a lot of money considering usually most inmates make 10 cents an hour. When you consider a box of chicken costs $7 and coffee is $5 inside our prison, the pay does not go far.
The wall of the prison soap shop feels like it has a heartbeat because a diaphragm pump is continuously churning the hand sanitizer solution in four-thousand-gallon tanks. The bottlers sit in two straight lines.
With the arrival of summer heat, it is so hot inside that most of us jimmy an empty bottle between our forehead and goggles so they won’t fog up. And we laugh about being unicorn bottlers. It is now over 100 degrees in there on some days.
We are not socially distanced. For hours on end, we “pull bottles,” which reminds us all of pulling a draft beer. We pull a lever to fill the 2-ounce bottle, then we take a cap from the trough in front of us, cap the bottle, and put it in a box. The runners take the full boxes to shipping, where the box is re-counted, taped shut, labeled, and placed on a pallet that is shrink-wrapped by hand, sealed with a green bander, and then a hand pallet jack is used to load the pallet onto the delivery truck.
A full box of exploitative “free” NY Clean hand sanitizer consists of 50 bottles. In a six-hour shift, we must fill 16,000 bottles to make our bonus, which is the difference between making 32 cents or 64 cents per hour. 16,000 bottles rounds to 336 boxes or three and a half pallets for our shift, which combined with the morning shift equals seven full pallets per day, seven days a week. Put another way: our inmate factory is labeling, bottling, and boxing by hand, conservatively, 32,000 bottles per day, and 224,000 bottles per week. Our goal is 7 million bottles.
The smell is sharp, corrosive lemon that makes your brain numb. The motion is repetitive, numbing in its own way. To pass the time, we converse loudly over the factory’s industrial hum.
We refer to Cuomo as “Uncle Andy” and openly debate if he will ever grant early release to any of his hand sanitizer inmates. We wonder if the nurses, doctors, and first responders even know that these bottles were assembled by hand by inmates, or if they care? We joke about our crazy coronavirus hair — and that it is still, oddly, better than our mugshot hair. We rant about the mile-long commissary out-of-stock list and shortages in our mess hall. We wonder if the big sign that reads “nationwide shortage on chicken” is really true.
The hand sanitizer is extremely flammable. It is 70 percent alcohol. The factory floor is full of fire police. One day I asked, “Why don’t we do fire drills?”
The officer said, “No need, if there is a fire, it will be an explosion and all we’ll need to do is identify your body parts that will be scattered outside.”
In May, we were belatedly issued white see-through handkerchiefs that we are allowed to sew into masks. I stapled mine to my bulletin board. A sergeant, on rounds, asked me why my “hanky-mask” was stapled to my board and I quoted Thomas Paine: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I said, “Sarge, I surrender, I can’t do this anymore, you give me this crazy see-through hanky, tell me it will save my life, but you’ve got me squished into a hand sanitizer factory, tethered to a grounding rod so that I don’t accidentally create static electricity and spark a fire (that is how flammable this is) and you are concerned why I’m not wearing a mask? Sir, with all due respect, my ‘hanky mask’ doesn’t even fit around my head.”
The sarge replied, “You think too much — that’s why your head is too big; and the fact your hanky mask is too small is an issue for Cuomo, not me! Just feel lucky you have a job, many people don’t.”
We are no longer allowed to bring pens to the factory because some of the women have been writing messages on the hand sanitizer. They write “free me” or “I’m a slave.”
As I said, none of this matrix is easy. I am grateful for my job but I wish my life weren’t in so much danger for pennies that I desperately need. People say that if the fumes inside the factory don’t kill you, then maybe the flames from a fire or the virus itself will get you.
Prisoners have been mobilized across the country to support the cause; I, for one, am proud to be participating in the fight against the invisible enemy. But, at this moment particularly, we deserve more dignity than has been afforded us. Now is a wake-up call. I wish proper safety protocols were in place. I wish we were paid a decent wage, even if a portion were a “forced savings plan” for our re-entry into society. I wish our work would earn us a “letter of support” for our future job applications, which are so difficult to achieve and so necessary to re-enter society.
The irony is that we’re not allowed to use hand sanitizer ourselves, or any products with alcohol content like shampoo or cosmetics, because some might drink it; we put addicts in prison rather than in rehab. And so the invaluable life-saving substance we’re making for that society — for you — for cheap is denied to us at any price. Tell me: Are we all in this together?
Still, in prison, it sometimes feels, paradoxically enough, as if we actually are all in this together.
In prison, there is this scattered togetherness of people from all walks of life trying to make sense of life. In my experience, the inmates usually have a much better handle on difficult virtues such as compassion, integrity, and justice than the administrators and lawmakers governing the “bad apples.”
I can’t help but think of Lulu, a dear friend who died from Covid-19 at the end of April. Her family had applied for but didn’t receive compassionate release for her. Like so many during this devastating pandemic — and like so many incarcerated people every day since long before this crisis began — Lulu died alone.
I learned a lot from Lulu. In the prison yard, we talked about a great many things: family, education, the law, injustice, what we’d do if we were the governor or president, if the perfect man had ever been birthed. Our conversations were fun and innocent, like two school girls before they learn of social constructs that separate like race, money, and religion.
Lulu had lived her life. In some ways, she never rose above the poverty and dysfunction that she had been born into, but that journey deepened her compassion and authenticity to all who knew and loved her. Lulu never made excuses for her life choices and, to me, that was one of her most endearing qualities — her authenticity.
Even if a prisoner has been convicted of murder, we as a society, as an educated and enlightened people, should model compassion. But we don’t. Lulu should have been one of many that Governor Cuomo released, to be with their family. Is it really such a hard policy to enact to identify good, older, and infirm inmates for the governor’s office to grant immediate release, in the middle of a pandemic, so they can die, at home, with dignity? (Even if we give them ankle bracelets to satisfy the Republicans!)
What is also tragic about prisoner deaths is that the family never gets to learn how incredibly important their loved one was to their prison community. Perhaps technology and prison reform will change this travesty one day.
Perhaps one of the lessons of Covid-19 is to remember our shared humanity and that deathbed vigils, and burying our loved ones with dignity (whether a prisoner or not) is an ethical imperative. Just as crime is perpetuated at every tier of our society, so too are great souls found. Prison eulogies have a great deal to teach us all about the human condition — about choices, consequences, and true redemption.
As our country is ravaged by this disease, society’s interconnectedness and its divisions both become clearer. I am reminded by Lulu’s passing that just as crime is perpetuated at every tier of our society (perhaps none so egregiously as at the very top), so too are great souls found. Although our hand sanitizer may kill germs, until we start humanely treating all people as such, it cannot make the hands of society clean.
Phyllis Dietrichson (not her real name) is serving time in New York for second-degree murder.