From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters
Oakland, Calif.—On April 8, the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) sent a press release claiming that incarcerated people have produced 17,000 barrier masks, and are currently making 10,000 more per day, for use as a COVID-19 safety measure.
However, dozens of people incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, where many of the masks are being produced, have reported that the vast majority of incarcerated people are not receiving any of these masks for their own use.
Directing incarcerated people to make masks that they are largely unable to use exemplifies the California Department of Corrections’ refusal to take the pandemic crisis seriously. It also reveals a stunning willingness to exploit imprisoned people’s labor while not supporting their lives.
SLAVE LABOR MAKES MASKS
Incarcerated people report working 12 hours per day, seven days a week, to make the masks. CALPIA pays incarcerated workers between 35 cents and $1 per hour, sustaining a slave labor market that is particularly vulnerable to exploitation in crises such as COVID-19. This development mirrors reports from New York that incarcerated people were forced to produce hand sanitizer for the safety of others without being able to use it for their own safety.
“It is unimaginable torture to require people to make masks to save lives around the world for pennies only to realize that you are not afforded the dignity of having and possessing a lifesaving mask. It shows an alarming lack of humanity,” said April Grayson, the Statewide Coordinator of Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition.
Advocates have received offers from businesses and churches willing to provide hundreds of masks for incarcerated people, but as Kelly Savage of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners stated, “The corrections department has neglected to adequately increase prevention measures, not because of lack of resources, but because of lack of will. They simply see incarcerated people as disposable. People are used as laborers when needed for others’ safety or profit, and disposed of when they become sick.”
FAMILIES PLEAD WITH GOVERNOR
People in California’s prisons, their families, and advocates have been pleading with Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections for weeks to immediately release vulnerable people and improve safety and health conditions to avoid a deadly public health crisis. Yet, despite a rapidly rising rate of COVID-19 cases emerging from prison staff infections, Gov. Newsom has failed to take action. Incarcerated people continue to report overcrowding, lack of urgent healthcare, lack of cleaning and disinfectant supplies, and lack of access to communication with loved ones.
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