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Rep. Ayanna Pressley slams New York's use of inmate labor for hand sanitizer production


She called the state's venture 'demeaning, ironic and exploitive'

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)/(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) does not approve of New York state using prison inmates to produce a line of hand sanitizers to meet increased demand amid its coronavirus outbreak. She lashed out, calling the practice "demeaning, ironic and exploitive."

What are the details?

The state's new venture was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday during a press conference, where he touted the product's 75% alcohol content and "floral bouquet" scent. The governor declared "It's much cheaper for us to make it ourselves than to buy it on the open market," and accused companies such as Purell and suppliers like Amazon of "price gouging" amid shortages.

Rep. Pressley reacted to the news by tweeting, "Wow. Considering that many incarcerated men & women are subjected to inhumane conditions, including no hand soap, & hand sanitizer is banned in most prisons, this is especially demeaning, ironic & exploitive."

The issue hits particularly close to home for Pressley, whose father and husband were both incarcerated. In an interview published by the Appeal last week, the congresswoman from Massachusetts said:

Prison is cruel and it erases your humanity because there are so many demoralizing things that happen. You're void, in solitary, of human touch. You're void of dignified shelter. You're void of quality food. And then on top of it, not only are there a number of unjust things happening, but they're all very profitable. How much it costs to make a phone call or the challenges to put money on someone's books. All these things have been privatized, monetized, and created a huge for-profit industry.

The Washington Examiner reported Monday that "the ethics of prison labor have been long debated. While some believe that work in prisons could give prisoners purpose and training for after they are released, others have argued that it is exploitative because of low wages. In New York, prisoners earn an average of 52 cents per hour."

Another argument is that government should not use cheap labor to compete with private businesses, as there are documented cases of corporations run by state and federal prison systems edging out privately owned companies using the advantage of lower overhead.

In New York, Gov. Cuomo made just such a threat on Monday as he held an infomercial for his state-owned hand sanitizer. "To Purell, and Mr. Amazon, and Mr. eBay," the governor warned, "if you continue the price gouging, we will introduce our product which is superior to your product. And you don't even have the floral bouquet."

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