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September 11, 2018

Pa. state prisons end lockdown; synthetic cannabinoids ID'd as cause of illnesses

The Department of Corrections plans a series of changes to avoid similar incidents

Investigations Prisons
prison strike barbed wire Bart Boatwright/The Greenville News via USA TODAY NETWORK

Barbed wire outside a prison building.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections ended its lockdown of state prisons on Monday, nearly two weeks after upping security measures in the wake of a surge of drug-related illnesses for more than 50 employees.

The DoC said in a statement Monday that lab tests confirmed inmate overdoses were linked to synthetic cannabinoids and other illegal substances. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said employees became ill by encountering the substances in question during the course of their work days.

The lockdown began August 29, after a sixth instance of multiple state prison employees falling ill in the span of 24 days. The first outbreak of illnesses stretched from August 6-13 at prisons in Fayette, Green, and Mercer counties.

The 12-day lockdown restricted inmates’ rights, like cutting off visitations and mail correspondence, and keeping inmates in their cells. The ACLU of Pennsylvania said the Department of Corrections hadn’t been sufficiently transparent during the lockdown, leaving prisoners’ families in the dark about the inmates’ health. 

Wetzel acknowledged that lockdowns can cause “stress and anxiety” for inmates, and said the state communicated regularly with inmates to explain the lockdown and future plans throughout the 12-day period.

The statement says employees underwent statewide training on proper glove use, and specific employees were trained to detect, contain and remove “hazardous materials.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of Corrections announced statewide changes to processes at state prisons, including:

• Elimination of mail processing at facilities using a third-party vendor that will process all non-legal inmate mail
Improved safety precautions used when opening legal mail in front of inmates
Increased staffing in all visiting rooms
Stricter visiting suspensions for visitors and inmates caught introducing contraband via visiting rooms, including indefinite or even lifetime bans for visitors
A bolstered library system and a centralized ordering/purchasing of books for inmates
Expansion of drone detection software and capabilities
Enhanced inmate commitment/reception protocol
Expanded use of body scanners
Implementation of a drug hotline where individuals can report information about drugs inside state facilities

Wetzel said he "will not hesitate" to resume the lockdown if incidents continue.


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