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August 29, 2018

Pennsylvania state prisons placed on indefinite lockdown after recent rash of staff illnesses

All Department of Corrections visits are suspended for the length of the lockdown

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

Barbed wire outside a prison building.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced Wednesday that all state correctional institutions have been placed on lockdown indefinitely following multiple instances of staff members being sickened by unknown substances in recent weeks.

According to WTAE, two guards and three nurses at a facility in Albion, Erie County, were the latest employees to reportedly come down with the unknown illness.

DOC secretary John Wetzel said on Wednesday that the safety and security of employees was his number one concern.

“Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened,” Wetzel said, “and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”

In addition to all state prisons being placed on lockdown, all DOC mailrooms have been closed to non-legal mail until further notice; use of personal protective equipment is mandatory for all employees; training on situational awareness will be held in all institutions; and all visits are suspended for the length of the lockdown.

In five separate cases between Aug. 6 and Aug. 13, the Associated Press reported last week, employees at Fayette, Green, and Mercer state prisons exhibited symptoms that required medical treatment.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Amy Worden told the Associated Press that state police investigators were testing a substance, which she described as a "liquid synthetic drug that's taking different forms." 

On Aug. 14, six workers at Butler County Prison became ill after coming into contact with “a suspicious substance” during a search of an inmate’s cell.

The cause of the latest illnesses isn’t clear, but a line in the DOC’s release Wednesday makes it appear they’re considering the possibility of opioid exposure. The DOC cited reports from a correctional institution in Ohio on Wednesday, where more than 20 employees experienced what the release described as “possible opioid overdose symptoms.”


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