Part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, stands at sunset Wednesday, April 15, 2020.
CNN  — 

When a half-dozen inmates reported in for their prison jobs in Nebraska in late March, they found themselves with a new assignment: turning vats of ethanol into 2,500 gallons of coronavirus-killing hand sanitizer, for a wage of $1.08 an hour.

But while their work has helped the state government stave off a sanitizer shortage, the inmates on the production line – and more than 5,000 others in prisons around Nebraska – are banned from using the hand gel they helped make, according to the state corrections department.

They’re not alone. Even as correctional facilities have emerged as some of the country’s largest sources of coronavirus outbreaks, hand sanitizer is still considered contraband in all federal prisons as well as state prisons in more than a dozen states, a CNN review of department policies found.

“They have the capability to protect us, but they are failing to do it,” Ryan Kubik, an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, told CNN. He said he was “scared to death” of catching the virus in his overcrowded prison. “People are going to die in here.”

Hand sanitizer has long been banned in most prisons due to its 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 correctional facilities “consider relaxing restrictions” on alcohol-based sanitizer “where security concerns allow.” A CDC spokesperson said that the extent to which the rules could be relaxed “will depend on the security level of the facility and other aspects of the operational environment.”

Many states have followed the advice: At least 30 corrections departments are allowing inmates to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, either letting prisoners have their own bottles or dispensing it to them in a more controlled method. Most had banned the substance before the pandemic broke out.

But 17 state corrections departments – including six of the 10 with the largest inmate populations – said they were maintaining their bans for now, many arguing that the alcohol in sanitizer made it a safety 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 prison systems that ban sanitizer, which include Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, said they are providing inmates free soap and other toiletries and reminding them about the importance of washing their hands frequently.

And in North Carolina, Minnesota and Tennessee, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is banned but inmates are provided alcohol-free sanitizer, officials said – even though the CDC recommends using sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol by volume to kill the virus that causes Covid-19. A North Carolina corrections department spokesman said state medical experts had found their alcohol-free solution to be effective, while a Minnesota spokesman said that officials were still considering whether or not to switch to alcohol-based sanitizer. 

The restrictions on sanitizer remain in place even as 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, correctional facilities are becoming deadly hotspots, 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 website. Several thousand prison staffers have also tested positive and more than a dozen have died, the tally found.

While some states have begun to release certain inmates to make social distancing easier in their facilities, criminal justice advocates argue that far more needs to be done.

“We have corrections staff and detained people dying from Covid-19 today all over the country, and probably tens of thousands of infections we don’t know about,” said Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City’s jail system, which includes Rikers Island. Hand sanitizer is “one of the most basic tools identified by the CDC, so there’s no excuse for not implementing it,” he said.

Many of the states that have relaxed their policies have opted for compromise solutions where inmates only have controlled access to alcohol-based sanitizer. Last month, Nevada corrections officers provided some offenders bottles of sanitizer on a trial basis, “but within a few hours, two offenders drank their hand sanitizer and got sick,” department of corrections spokesman Scott Kelley said. “NDOC had to confiscate all of the bottles.”

Now, staffers carry around one-gallon bottles of hand sanitizer, Kelley said, and “provide offenders two to three squirts, under supervision.” 

Making sanitizer but banned from using it

An inmate makes hand santizer at a prison in Nevada.

As sanitizer has flown off store shelves in the newly germophobic world beyond prison walls, some state leaders have turned to inmates for help dealing with potential shortages.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted his new “New York State Clean”-branded sanitizer bottled by prisoners, unveiling stacks of jugs from behind a curtain at one of his daily press conferences in March. But after activists pointed out that the inmates who made the gel weren’t allowed to use it, the state’s corrections department said it would make the sanitizer available in prison common areas.

Some Texas inmates have also been working to repackage hand sanitizer, and Maryland inmates are helping bottle sanitizer, spokespeople said, even though both states ban prisoners from using the substance. Both states said they were providing inmates with soap.

In Nebraska, a small group of inmates with a less restrictive security level have been helping produce and bottle alcohol-based sanitizer, which will be used by prison staff and other state employees, the state corrections department said. Inmates are provided free soap and easy access to water, the department said. The sanitizer operation has paused for now after meeting its initial goal, said Jeremy Elder, the department’s deputy director for industries, but inmates could make more if the need arises. Other inmates are still making masks and gowns.

Elder said inmates who handled the ethanol used to make sanitizer did so under close supervision, and that it made sense for alcohol-based sanitizer to be banned in prisons.

“It’s a pretty big concern, especially when you have people with a substance abuse history,” he said. “There’s a very strong mixture of alcohol in it.”

But David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called the sanitizer bans an “exceedingly unfortunate” example of prison leadership “fixating on the minor risks at the expense of paying attention to much more significant risks.”

“If prisoners can be around gallons of hand sanitizer when they’re making it, why can’t they have a little tiny bottle in their cell for personal use?” he asked. “We should be doing everything in our power to slow the spread of the virus.”

Family members of inmates in Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons – which hold about one and a half times as many inmates as they were designed for, according to state data – say they’re worried corrections officials aren’t 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 terroristic threats, according to state records. Peterson, who runs a Facebook group for inmates’ relatives, said she’d been getting “three or four calls a day from mothers who are telling me their guys inside are sick.” She called the alcohol-based hand sanitizer ban “ridiculous.”

While no Nebraska inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 so far, four prison staffers have. Kubik, who is serving a 5-to-10 year sentence for drug possession, argued that the department is not testing enough inmates, even those who show symptoms. A state corrections department spokesperson did not respond to requests about the department’s testing of inmates.

Kubik said there are 112 inmates living in his housing unit, which was designed for 75 people, and sharing just seven sinks. He said having access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer would be helpful in an environment where he sleeps arm’s length away from other inmates and “social distancing does not exist.”

“There’s no way to keep this environment clean and sanitary,” he said. “I feel like cattle in a feedlot waiting for my turn to die.”

Soap may not be enough, experts say

Several of the corrections agencies that ban inmates from using sanitizer point out that the CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water as the best way to kill the virus. Some of the states with the largest inmate populations, such as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, say that the free soap and other toiletries they’re providing inmates go far enough.

“Some hand sanitizers are flammable, thus creating a security concern,” said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “We have educated inmates about how to properly wash their hands and given them free bars of antibacterial soap. We also provide them with cleaning supplies to keep their cells clean.”

Still, experts and advocates for inmates’ rights said they worried that soap isn’t enough in all prisons. Venters, the former Rikers Island medical chief, noted that sinks in some correctional facilities are often broken or limit the amount of water they let out at a time, making it difficult for inmates to scrub their hands for the recommended 20 seconds.

Venters warned that outbreaks could have a big impact outside prison walls, potentially overwhelming smaller hospitals near remote prisons and putting correctional staff and their families at risk. “Slowing the infection behind bars both saves lives inside the prison and flattens the curve outside for the community,” he said.

And some family members of inmates say official policies aren’t always carried out. The Florida Department of Corrections said in a statement that soap is “available in inmate restrooms” and “replenished as needed.”

But Jill Trask, whose husband Joel is an inmate at Lake Correctional Institution near Orlando, said he told her prisoners there are currently only given one small bar of soap a week. She said she had hoped to send him a supply of hand sanitizer and was surprised to find out that it was banned.

Joel, who was convicted of aggravated assault for firing a shot at two teenagers, according to court records, has severe diabetes that makes him especially vulnerable to the virus, his wife said. The facility is filthy and social distancing is all but impossible, she added.

“Their punishment is time, not death,” Jill said. “I literally have a grown man on the phone crying from fear.”

Patchwork of restrictions

Some inmates have turned to the courts for help improving hygiene in their facilities. Two elderly Texas inmates sued their state prisons department in March, asking for hand sanitizer, face masks and more soap and paper towels, along with stepped-up social distancing practices. In the lawsuit, the inmates’ 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 of Appeals last month temporarily blocked his order from going into effect. The state government had argued that it was doing enough to address the threat of the disease in its prisons.

For now, inmates face a patchwork of rules on hand sanitizer use from state to state.

In Montana, hand sanitizer is banned at the state’s prison for men, but it’s dispensed regularly to inmates at the prison for women, a spokeswoman said.

In Arkansas and North Dakota, inmates can’t have their own sanitizer, but corrections officers carry it and can give some to inmates.

Meanwhile, shortages have gotten in the way of some states’ plans to offer inmates sanitizer. Kansas prisons plan to provide it to inmates in a controlled manner, but sanitizer supplies are currently back ordered, a spokesman said.

Randall Liberty, the Maine Department of Corrections commissioner, said his state had moved swiftly to scrap all restrictions on hand sanitizer use by inmates – part of a response to the virus that he credited with preventing any confirmed infections among the state’s approximately 2,000 prisoners.

“I think we need to use all the tools that we have available to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our facilities,” Liberty said in an interview. “We’ve had no problems so far.”