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PA Tightens Prison Security, But Is It Warranted?

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) -- Pennsylvania Corrections officials announced Wednesday, they're drastically cracking down on inmates' mail privileges and increasing other security measures.

They believe a few dozen staffers have been sickened by synthetic drugs in state prisons.

However, some toxicologists say it's unlikely any drugs are quite as dangerous as the department is making them out to be--and the ACLU has raised a few red flags as well.

The security restrictions began last week, when the Corrections Department locked down all 25 of its state prisons. Inmates were more or less confined to their cells 24 hours a day--and though individual prisons have started relaxing procedures somewhat, the lockdown is still in place.

But Governor Tom Wolf said the lockdown alone isn't enough.

"The sickening of more than 30 staff members from unknown substances over the past three weeks is frightening. It's unacceptable and it needs to be stopped," he told reporters at a press conference.

Prison officials believe staffers were sickened--at least in part--by mail that had been soaked in synthetic drugs.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said effective immediately, all 25 prisons are going to stop processing mail entirely. Instead, a central location will scan it, and a color copy will go to prisoners.

Any legal mail will be copied on-camera in front of inmates and original documents will be preserved at the prison.

"This is an unusual step," Wetzel said. "But the reality is, we're certain that there's drugs in there. And we've had enough people exposed. We're not going to have anybody else exposed."

A spokeswoman for the Corrections Department said Pennsylvania may be the first state in the country to contract with a vendor to scan mail outside of a prison--though she noted the vendor, Smart Communications, "does contract with county jails and some prison systems copy mail on site for inmates."

Mail processing isn't the only thing that's changing.

All prisons will now have drone detection services and body scanners for visitors and staff. Book deliveries will be routed through the Corrections Department itself. And staff for visiting rooms is being doubled. If a visitor or prisoner is caught attempting to smuggle in drugs three times, they could face a lifetime state prison visitation ban.

Wetzel said it's all necessary.

"Just let me be clear," he said. "It's not pleasant to stand in front of you and say we have a drug problem in our prisons. But when we send 30 staff out in three weeks, the facts are the facts."

But some--like University of Pennsylvania toxicologist Jeanmarie Perrone--aren't so sure it's necessary.

The problem has been attributed to synthetic drugs--and specifically, synthetic cannabinoids like K2. They're potent, and they can also come in a wide range of different formulas, so first responders--and prison guards--don't always know what they're dealing with.

Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections said dozens of staff members have gotten sick from incidental exposure to drugs--many of which haven't been identified.

In five of the 28 drug exposure cases the DOC has catalogued, anti-opioid overdose agent Narcan has been administered. Department officials did not elaborate on the circumstances of the use, saying "staff are trained in recognizing the signs of an overdose and the application of Narcan is at their discretion."

In three of the Narcan cases, field tests were negative or inconclusive for presence of drugs. One incident yielded a positive test for the opioid fentanyl, and another was positive for synthetic cannabinoids.

According to officials from the Department of Drugs and Alcohol Programs, Narcan isn't effective for synthetic cannabinoid overdoses.

Perrone said the staff illnesses don't make sense to her.

"We know that skin absorption is very unlikely, and we also know that inhalational sickness is also not going to occur from transient exposure," she said.

She thinks the cause may actually be anxiety or fear about drug exposure - not contamination.

"That scary feeling can make you feel very unsettled, and if you think you're about to die associated with the exposure that you just had, it's certainly easy to see patients nearly fainting or feeling very unwell," she said.

A spokesman for Pennsylvania's Department of Health also said it's "unlikely that a lot of people should be getting sick from incidental contact," though added that first responders should take precautions, like wearing gloves when coming into contact with unknown drugs.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said they don't want to second-guess the symptoms of their employees.

"When you have almost 60 complaints of varying symptoms (since June 1) where employees have had to be taken to the hospital for evaluation they are taken seriously," she wrote in an email.

And she noted, the department is still not sure what exactly some of the substances are.

It isn't just toxicologists who have raised questions about the Department of Corrections' prison decisions.

Vic Walczak, the legal director at Pennsylvania's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the prospect of prisons keeping inmates' legal mail on file is a red flag.

"Legal mail is the most protected form of correspondence," he said. "It's subject to special rules that the courts have developed to protect confidentiality. If a prison makes and keeps a copy of legal mail, that creates obvious opportunities for abuse, and will chill prisoners--and likely their attorneys--from communicating and writing at all."

He also said the ACLU is concerned about the use of ion scanners to detect drugs, as they've been known to turn up false positives--and he said that's especially concerning considering the DOC is now handing down lifetime visitor bans.

Ultimately, Walczak says he wants to make sure prisoners aren't losing rights over small potatoes.

"Prisoners don't get a whole lot of protection from the courts. But protections for legal mail, for communications with the outside world, are covered by the first amendment," he said.

There's still no set end to the prison lockdown, though Department of Corrections officials have said they're hoping to get things more or less back to normal next week.