But while their work has helped the state government stave off a lack of cleansers, inmates on the production line – and more than 5,000 others in prisons around Nebraska – are banned from using the hand they helped create, according to the state corrections department.
They are not alone. Although the criminal justice system has emerged as one of the nation's largest sources of coronavirus outbreaks, hand sanitizers are still considered infectious in all federal prisons as well as state prisons in more than a dozen states, a CNN review of departmental policy found.
"They have the ability to protect us, but they can't do it," Ryan Kubik, a Nebraska State Penitentiary inmate, told CNN. He said he was "scared to death" to catch the virus in the crowded prison. "People are going to die in here."
Hand sanitizer has long been banned in most prisons because of the alcohol content, based on fears that inmates would drink it or use it to start fires. But during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that the Prison and Probation Service "consider relaxing restrictions" on alcohol-based sanitizers "where safety considerations allow." A spokesman for the CDC said the extent to which the rules could be relaxed "will depend on the security level of the facility and other aspects of the operating environment."
Many states have followed the advice: At least 30 correctional departments allow inmates to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, either allowing prisoners to bring their own bottles or handing them out for a more controlled method. Most had banned the drug before the pandemic broke out.
But 17 state corrections departments – including six of the 10 with the largest inmate population – said they maintained the ban for now, and many claimed the alcohol in the sanitizer made it a security risk. And inmates in federal prisons around the country are also prohibited from using hand sanitizer, the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement.
Many of the sanitizer bans, which include Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, say they provide inmates with free soap and other toiletries and remind them of the importance of washing their hands frequently.
And in North Carolina, Minnesota and Tennessee, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are banned, but inmates receive alcohol-free sanitizers, officials said – though the CDC recommends using disinfectant with at least 60% alcohol in volume to kill the virus that causes Covid-19. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Corrections said state medical experts had found their non-alcoholic solution effective, while a Minnesota spokesman said officials were still considering whether or not to switch to alcohol-based disinfectant.
Disinfectant restrictions remain in place even though the virus has spread like wildfire through prisons around the country. With inmates packed into crowded, often unsanitary housing units, and access to medical treatment limited, forensic services become deadly hot spots, experts say.
As of last week, more than 14,500 inmates around the country had tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 218 had died of the disease, according to a count by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site. Several thousand prison staff have also tested positive and more than a dozen dead, the enumeration summarizes.
While some states have begun to release certain inmates to make social distance easier in their facilities, criminal justice argues that far more needs to be done.
"We have correctional staff and interns who die from Covid-19 today across the country, and probably tens of thousands of infections we don't know about," said Homer Venters, the former medical director of New York's prison system, which includes Rikers Island. Hand sanitizer is "one of the most basic tools identified by the CDC, so there is no excuse not to implement it," he said.
Many states that have relaxed their policies have opted for compromise solutions where inmates have only controlled access to alcohol-based disinfectant. Last month, Nevada corrections officers gave some offenders bottles of disinfectant on a trial basis, "but within hours, two offenders drank the hand sanitizer and got sick," Corrections spokesman Scott Kelley said. "The NDOC had to confiscate all the bottles."
Now, employees carry around a gallon of bottles with hand sanitizer, Kelley said, "providing offended two to three syringes, under supervision."
Creates disinfectant but forbidden to use it
As sanitizers have fluttered the store shelves of the recently germophobic world outside the prison walls, some heads of state have turned to inmates for help in dealing with potential shortages.
New York statesman Andrew Cuomo has spied his new "New York State Clean" branded sanitizer tapped by prisoners, unveiling stacks of jugs behind a curtain at one of his daily press conferences in March. But after activists pointed out that the inmates who made the gel were not allowed to use it, the state corrections department said it would make sanitation available in public areas of the prison.
Some inmates in Texas have also been working on repackaging hand sanitizers, and Maryland inmates are assisting with bottle stabilizers, spokesmen said, though both states prohibit prisoners from using the drug. Both states said they gave inmates soap.
In Nebraska, a small group of inmates with a less restrictive level of safety has helped produce and bottle alcohol-based disinfectant, which will be used by prison staff and other state employees, the state corrections department said. Inmates get free soap and easy access to water, the department said. The clean-up operation has been paused for now after meeting its original goal, said Jeremy Elder, the department's vice president for industry, but inmates can do more if the need arises. Other inmates still make masks and dresses.
Elderly said inmates who handled the ethanol used to make sanitizer did so under close supervision, and that it made sense that alcohol-based disinfectant was banned in prisons.
"It's a pretty big concern, especially when you have people with a history of rush," he said. "There's a very strong mix of alcohol in it."
But David Fathi, director of the ACLU's national prison project, called the disinfectant prohibited an "excessively unfortunate" example of prison management "fixing on minor risks at the expense of taking into account much more significant risks."
"If prisoners can be around a liter of hand sanitizer when they make it, why can't they have a tiny bottle in the cell for personal use?" he asked. "We should do everything in our power to curb the spread of the virus."
Family members of inmates in Nebraska's overcrowded prisons – which hold about a half times as many inmates as they were designed for, according to state data – say they are concerned corrections officials are not doing enough to protect their loved ones.
"I don't think they're taking it seriously," said Kelly Peterson, whose fiancé, Jason Bradley, is serving an 18-month sentence for making terrorist threats, according to state records. Peterson, who runs a Facebook group for inmates, said she had received "three or four calls a day from mothers who tell me that their guys inside are sick." She called the alcohol-based hand cleansing ban "ridiculous."
While no Nebraska inmate has tested positive for Covid-19 so far, four prison staff have it. Kubik, who is serving a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years for drug possession, argued that the department does not test enough inmates, even those showing symptoms. A spokesman for a state correctional department did not respond to requests for departmental testing of inmates.
Kubik said there are 112 inmates living in his residence, which was designed for 75 people, and who only shared seven washes. He said that having access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer would be useful in an environment where he sleeps arm's length from other inmates and that "social distancing does not exist."
"There is no way to keep this environment clean and sanitary," he said. "I feel like cattle in a feeding basket waiting for my turn to die."
Soap may not be enough, experts say
Several of the correctional agencies that prohibit inmates from using disinfectant point out that the CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water as the best way to kill the virus. Some states with the largest inmate populations, such as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, say that free soap and other toiletries they provide inmates go far enough.
"Some hand cleaners are flammable, creating a security problem," said Susan McNaughton, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman. "We have trained inmates on how to wash their hands properly and given them free bars of antibacterial soap. We also provide them with cleaning materials to keep the cells clean."
Still, experts and advocates for prisoners' rights said they were worried that soap is not enough in all prisons. Venters, the former medical director of Rikers Island, noted that the sink in some criminal care is often broken or limits the amount of water they release at a time, making it difficult for inmates to scrub their hands for the recommended 20 seconds.
The airmen warned that outbreaks could have a major impact outside the prison walls, potentially overwhelmingly smaller hospitals near remote prisons and jeopardize prison care and their families. "Slowing down the infection behind the bars saves both lives in prison and flattens the curve outside the community," he said.
And some family members of inmates say that official policy is not always implemented. The Florida Department of Corrections said in a statement that soap is "available in inmate toilets" and "replenished as needed."
But Jill Trask, whose husband Joel is an inmate at the Lake Correctional Institution near Orlando, said he told the inmates that only a small bar of soap has been provided so far this week. She said she had hoped to send him a supply of hand sanitizer and was surprised to find that it was forbidden.
According to court records, Joel, who was convicted of aggravated assault for shooting two teenagers, has severe diabetes that makes him particularly vulnerable to the virus, the wife said. The facility is filthy and social distancing is anything but impossible, she added.
"Their punishment is time, not death," Jill said. "I literally have a grown man on the phone crying for fear."
Patchwork of restrictions
Some inmates have approached the courts to help improve the hygiene of their facilities. Two senior inmates in Texas sued the State Prison Department in March, asking for hand sanitizer, face masks and more soap and paper towels, along with stepped social distance practices. In the lawsuit, the inmate's lawyers called Covid-19 a "ticking time bomb" for the state prison system.
But while a federal district court judge ruled in their favor, the Fifth Circuit Court last month temporarily blocked his injunction from taking effect. The state government had claimed it was doing enough to deal with the threat of the disease in prisons.
Currently, inmates face a patchwork of rules for the use of hand-cleaning from state to state.
In Montana, hand cleaning is prohibited in the state prison for men, but it is regularly handed out to prison inmates for women, a spokeswoman said.
In Arkansas and North Dakota, inmates cannot have their own disinfectant, but correctional officers carry it and can provide some to inmates.
Meanwhile, deficiencies have come in the way of some states' plans to offer inmate sanitizers. Kansas prisons are planning to give it to inmates in a controlled manner, but sanitation supplies have so far been ordered back, a spokeswoman said.
Randall Liberty, Maine's Department of Corrections Commissioner, said his state had moved swiftly to scrape all restrictions on the use of hand-sanitized inmates – part of a response to the virus he credited for preventing confirmed infections among the state's roughly 2,000 catches.
"I think we need to use all the tools we have available to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our facilities," Liberty said in an interview. "We haven't had any problems so far."