PA Roiled by Prison Lockdown on Heels of Drug Exposures

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – One week into the lockdown of Pennsylvania’s 25 prisons — put into place after dozens of correction staffers fell ill from apparent drug exposures — criticism is mounting even as the state says conditions are improving.

The lockdown began on Aug. 28 after more than 30 corrections officers and other prison staffers became sick from exposure to K2, a type of synthetic cannabinoid that was apparently smuggled into nine different prisons. At least five of the staffers experienced reactions severe enough to require the anti-overdose medication naloxone.

Discussing the situation Tuesday on WITF-FM’s “Smart Talk,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the state began to relax restrictions Saturday after reaching 24 hours without exposure.

While inmates are still being denied visitation hours and mail privileges, he said they are no longer completely confined to their cells and can use the prison phones.

“We’re starting to do more out-of-cell activity, but it’s slow — it’s nowhere close to normal operations,” Wetzel told Smart Talk.

The lockdown could be over by next week if there is a continued decline in the number of exposures, Wetzel said.

Distinguishing K2 from marijuana, Wetzel said the drug’s effects are more similar to those of methamphetamines. It is an odorless, undetectable liquid that can be added to ink or soaked into paper.

Wetzel’s interview sparked immediate blowback, however, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

“That response is inadequate,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a statement. “We do not accept the notion that the DOC can hold prisoners in their cells 24 hours per day, stop mail, and end visitations and phone calls in every state facility every time a staff person becomes ill. The health of the DOC staff is certainly critical, as is the health and well-being of prisoners. A statewide lockdown is a heavy-handed response that is detrimental to the long-term health of people who are incarcerated.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections called the ACLU’s understanding of the situation inaccurate, and reiterated that inmates as of Saturday have access to showers, phones and limited out-of-cell time.

“The safety of all who live and work behind the fences of DOC institutions is of utmost importance, which is why DOC undertook this extraordinary step of a system-wide lockdown in the first place, to halt the flow of drugs into prisons,” a statement from the department states. “As long as the system remains incident-free the DOC will continue to allow more out-of-cell time for inmates with the goal of lifting the lockdown early next week. The DOC has posted regular updates on the lockdown on social media and the website, as well as responded to inmate family phone calls.”

DOC officials released a full exposure log Tuesday, detailing the number of staffers made sick by exposure incidents since the end of May 2018. According to the document, a total of 58 prison staffers have been exposed in 29 similar incidents within the last three months. Prompting the lockdown, these incidents spiked in August, with 23 incidents reported across eight prisons.

That the DOC released numbers only on impacted staff, not inmates, inspired criticism as well.

“The DOC should immediately provide public information about how many prisoners, if any, have become ill and how families can check on the status of their loved ones,” the ACLU’s Shuford said.

The same week the Pennsylvania prison lockdown began, an Ohio state prison treated 29 people for accidental drug exposure, and five inmates in Arkansas died of suspected overdoses. It is unknown in both cases what drugs caused these incidents.

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