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Prison Illnesses Lead To Pennsylvania Lockdown

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The entire state prison system in Pennsylvania has been locked down after a sudden rash of illnesses among employees. They're thought to be caused by accidental exposure to synthetic drugs. This move may be unprecedented in Pennsylvania, but it's not the only state struggling with prison staff getting sick from unidentified drugs.

WITF's Katie Meyer reports that this lockdown came the same day 29 people at an Ohio prison were treated for accidental drug exposure. And it was announced that five inmates in Arkansas died of suspected overdoses.

KATIE MEYER, BYLINE: The specific incidents vary, but in all three states, officials have been largely unable to say for sure which drugs were involved or how they actually got into the prisons. In Ohio, an entire cell block was contaminated by what may have been the opioid fentanyl. Thirty-one inmates who weren't affected were relocated, and the whole block is being cleaned. In Pennsylvania, the department of corrections says the problem's been brewing for a while.

SUSAN MCNAUGHTON: There's something out there that's making its way into our prisons.

MEYER: Susan McNaughton is spokeswoman for the department. She says, earlier this month, increasing numbers of prison staff and inmates started getting sick.

MCNAUGHTON: It's possible that it could be a specific bad batch of some sort of drug. And also, it seems to be kind of out in the western part of the state. So it's kind of focused out there.

MEYER: The department has sent drug samples to be tested, but so far, only one has been identified - a synthetic cannabinoid often called K2. Also on Wednesday, the Arkansas Department of Corrections said five inmates had died of suspected drug overdoses. A dozen others have been treated for the same thing. Correction officials in Pennsylvania say they aren't taking any chances.

MCNAUGHTON: This weekend was kind of rough. The last couple of days, we had even, you know, a couple more incidents. And so the secretary said, that's it, lock it down.

MEYER: Spokeswoman Susan McNaughton says inmates are now confined to their cells.

MCNAUGHTON: They're not going to leave their housing unit to go to programs. They're not going to leave their housing unit to go to education or to eat their meals. Everything is going to happen in their cell.

MEYER: With more people getting sick, the department of corrections has begun to beef up drug safety protocols. Staff are now required to wear gloves at all times, and the department is restricting incoming mail. It's also considering expanding K-9 units and using body scanners on visitors. Hours after Pennsylvania announced its lockdown, Maryland closed its prisons to all visitors, and staff are not allowed to open any incoming mail.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Meyer in Harrisburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.