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Pennsylvania Prison Officials Change Mail Handling After Drug-Related Illnesses


Pennsylvania corrections officials are taking drastic measures to tighten security, and they're taking away inmates' mail privileges. This comes after a few dozen state prison staffers became sick. Officials believe contact with synthetic drugs is to blame, though toxicologists have some doubts. WITF's Katie Meyer reports.

KATIE MEYER, BYLINE: Last week, Pennsylvania's corrections department locked down all 25 of its state prisons. Prisoners 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. Now Governor Tom Wolf says they're taking another extreme action.


TOM WOLF: The sickening of more than 30 staff members from unknown substances over the past three weeks, really, is frightening. It's not acceptable, and it needs to be stopped.

MEYER: Prison officials believe staffers were sickened by mail that had been soaked in synthetic drugs. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says effective immediately, Pennsylvania prisons are going to stop processing all mail. Instead, a central location will scan it, and a color copy will go to prisoners.


JOHN WETZEL: This is an unusual step, 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.

MEYER: It's not just mail either. 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. Wetzel says it's all necessary.


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

MEYER: Some other people 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 says dozens of staff members have gotten sick from incidental exposure to drugs, many of which haven't been identified. In some cases, anti-overdose agent Narcan has been administered. Officials wouldn't provide further details. In other cases, they say toxicology reports came back negative. Jeanmarie Perrone, a toxicologist with the University of Pennsylvania, says the staff illnesses don't make sense to her.

JEANMARIE PERRONE: We know that skin absorption is very unlikely, and we know that inhalational sickness is also not going to occur from transient exposure.

MEYER: She thinks the cause may be anxiety or fear about drug exposure, not contamination.

PERRONE: 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, you know, it's certainly easy to see patients nearly fainting or feeling very unwell.

MEYER: A spokesman for Pennsylvania's Department of Health also says it's unlikely that a lot of people should be getting sick from incidental contact though said first responders should take precautions. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections says they don't want to second-guess the symptoms of their employees. She says they've had almost 60 complaints of symptoms, and she noted the department's still not sure what exactly some of the substances are.

There's still no set end to the prison lockdown. The Department of Corrections officials have said they're hoping to get things more or less back to normal next week. For NPR News I'm Katie Meyer in Harrisburg, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 5, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier headline and introduction incorrectly said prison officials are banning inmate mail. Actually, inmates will receive copies of mail that will be processed outside the prisons.
Katie Meyer is WITF’s Capitol bureau chief, and she covers all things state politics for public radio stations throughout Pennsylvania. Katie came to Harrisburg by way of New York City, where she worked at Fordham University’s public radio station, WFUV, as an anchor, general assignment reporter, and co-host of an original podcast. A 2016 graduate of Fordham, she won several awards for her work at WFUV, including four 2016 Gracies. Katie is a native New Yorker, though she originally hails from Troy, a little farther up the Hudson River. She can attest that the bagels are still pretty good there.