Pa. prison's inmates reach record detox level in February

More than 80 percent of new inmates lodged at a prison in February were addicted to drugs or alcohol


Rich Cholodofsky
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

GREENSBURG, Pa. — More than 80 percent of new inmates lodged at Westmoreland County Prison in February were addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Warden John Walton on Monday told members of the county’s prison board that inmates who needed detoxification services hit an all-time high, raising concerns the drug epidemic that has plagued the county in recent years is not abating even as the number of overdose deaths has declined.

“Because of education and awareness, it is leveling but there are people out there who we still need to get to, get them in treatment,” said Tim Phillips, director of Westmoreland County’s Drug Overdose Task Force. The number of inmates needing detoxification is an indication that drugs continue to be a problem, he said.

“Once we get them into the (justice) system, at least we can give them more assistance for their issues,” Phillips said.

In February, 152 of 187 inmates admitted to the Hempfield jail needed detox treatment, including 73 for addiction to opioids, Walton said. Inmates who are addicted inform jail staff when entering the facility. They are supervised and watched for withdrawal symptoms.

Meanwhile, for the first time since 2008, overdose deaths in the county declined last year. According to the coroner’s office, there were 122 overdose deaths in 2018, down from a record 193 in 2017. As of March 7, there have been 11 overdoses in the county, according to the coroner’s office.

Although the number of addicted inmates fluctuates from month to month, it is a situation that has prompted officials to increase efforts to keep drugs from entering the facility.

In recent years, the county installed a full-body scanner to be used during comprehensive searches of new inmates. Last year, the jail instituted a policy requiring inmates to relinquish their shoes and are given rubber footwear. Inmates are barred from receiving original mail from outside the jail. They receive copies of envelopes and the contents.

Original copies of legal documents are given to inmates, but Walton said he now personally calls lawyers to verify the mail is legitimate.

Officials say the fear is that items such as shoes and mail can be used to smuggle in synthetic marijuana, which can be sprayed onto paper or shoes. In January, Walton said jail officials found traces of synthetic marijuana. This incident is under investigation by the county’s District Attorney’s Office, the warden said.

Security measures seem to have been mostly successful, though, Walton said.

An annual intensive jail inspection conducted Feb. 25 found no drugs.

Walton said eight drug-sniffing dogs were used in the cell-to-cell search, which lasted more than seven hours. Jail common areas also were searched.

“No drugs were found, but we did find areas where they might have been kept,” Walton said.

Walton suggested suspected drugs may have been flushed down toilets by inmates as the search progressed.

“I’m OK with that. As long as it’s out of the jail,” Walton said.

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©2019 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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