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As we face the rapid expansion of COVID-19 across the United States and beyond, it’s imperative that we take action on behalf of one of our most forgotten populations — the over 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in this country today. 

Experts are warning that it’s only a matter of time before the novel coronavirus makes its way into U.S. jails or prisons and that, like cruise ships or nursing homes, jails and prisons are particularly at risk given the virus’ propensity to spread quickly in closed spaces. 

Additional attention must be given to preparing jails and prisons for outbreaks and ensuring that this especially-vulnerable population is equipped with adequate resources. Unfortunately, however, the prison population has already begun to be publicly treated as a cheap, convenient, and somewhat disposable tool for addressing our response to the virus.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York had begun producing its own line of hand sanitizer, known as “NYS Clean,” which they plan to distribute to schools, local governments, and other public entities free of charge. As USA Today reports, “the low price of making the sanitizer in house – $6.10 a gallon – is because they are paying prisoners as little as 16 cents an hour to make it.” 

Governor Cuomo also announced that the hand sanitizer would be distributed to governmental agencies including prisons, yet failed to confirm if this applies to incarcerated individuals or solely the prison staff. Like many correctional systems across the country, the state of New York considers hand sanitizer to be contraband – meaning that not only are incarcerated people producing this at a very low cost for the health and safety of the public, but they may not even be allowed to use it to protect themselves. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery except as a punishment for a crime, yet prison labor is a pervasive aspect of our history post-slavery, including up to today. 

We cannot, and should not, force incarcerated individuals to produce vital resources to aid those outside of their walls without treating them equitably and fairly. Meanwhile, in addition to the close quarters that make those in prisons and jails particularly at risk, many people who are incarcerated are older adults or have chronic conditions like diabetes or HIV, making them even more vulnerable to severe forms of COVID-19.

As a bipartisan advocacy group that brings together leaders impacted by the criminal justice system, unlikely allies spanning the political divide, and actual people impacted by incarceration, we at #cut50 are writing to all state and federal lawmakers to urge them to prioritize legislation that makes our wage systems for incarcerated workers more just.

Historically, public health crises disproportionately impact our most vulnerable populations both in terms of resources and in terms of working conditions. We ask that we take action now to provide safety for everyone. 

In California, #cut50 has been championing Senate Concurrent Resolution 69 on Dignity for Incarcerated Workers, which addresses the urgency to transform the earning potential of incarcerated workers by raising the pay scale to provide adequate compensation for workers and their families. The bill, which will also better enable  incarcerated workers to fulfill financial obligations, received bipartisan support in the Senate and will soon move to the full Assembly, but the momentum can’t stop here. We hope this is the start of a comprehensive and humanizing change to both California’s wage system for incarcerated workers and systems nationally. Incarceration does not justify inhumane compensation. We urge California lawmakers to act now to pass this vital piece of legislation, and we urge lawmakers across the country to take similar action.

While there is much about this evolving health crisis that feels out of our control, protecting our most at risk populations — both from the virus itself, but also from inhumane working conditions — is absolutely in our control. The virus may be spreading, but so can a resolve to treat our fellow human beings with dignity and ensure we put in place policies and legislation that reflect that resolve.