All state prisons in Pennsylvania are on lockdown after dozens of workers at several of the institutions fell seriously ill in the last month. Officials believe the prison employees may have been sickened after being exposed to synthetic marijuana, according to media reports.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told reporters that he is unsure how long the institutions will remain on lockdown.
“We’re really just trying to make sure everybody’s safe and calm everybody down until we come out of this,” Wetzel said. “We don’t want to take a chance. We don’t want to put our staff at risk and, frankly, we don’t want to put our inmates at risk.”
Corrections officials announced the lockdown of all 24 state prisons on Wednesday after employees at institutions in Greene, Fayette, and Mercer counties became ill in five separate incidents. The workers who fell ill exhibited symptoms including shortness of breath, flushing, and loss of consciousness.
While on lockdown, inmates must remain in their cells 24 hours per day. No visitors are allowed and mail service for all but legal correspondence is halted. Wetzel said in a press release that the illnesses were being investigated.
“Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now,” Wetzel said.
Are Synthetic Cannabinoids To Blame?
Prison officials believe that powerful synthetic cannabinoids are making their way into the facilities. They suspect that colorless, liquid forms of the drug are being applied to the paper in letters and books being sent to inmates.
“Some of the challenge around this is that one of the ways that it’s coming is it’s a clear, odorless liquid that’s put on paper, so it’s kind of undetectable,” Wetzel said. “It’s just a difficult construct.”
Once inside the institution, prisoners consume the drugs by eating or smoking the treated paper.
New Safety Protocols Coming
The secretary said that new employee procedures were being established at the correctional facilities. Workers will now be required to use safety gear including gloves and other protective equipment. All employees will undergo training in dangerous substances and a hazardous materials response team will be assigned to each institution before the statewide lockdown is fully lifted. Wetzel added that hazmat teams will be in place by Friday, at which time the lockdown could be modified.
“Certainly visits and mail will be the last things that come back online,” he said. “We just can’t have a situation where we think there’s an issue and we’re sending staff in there and putting them at risk.”
Wetzel said that new safety procedures will be put in place at the prisons, which may include employees scanning every piece of mail arriving at the facilities.
“We have to learn how to act like a surgeon in an operating room – and that’s not just gloving up,” he said. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that anything we touch could possibly be contaminated.”