Pa. officials unveil measures to combat K2, synthetic drugs
New prison protections will include use of drones, no more mail delivery
By Steve Esack
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — No more mail delivery to prisons and no more paperback books. A closer watch for any drones over or near prison property, and more technology to scan for drugs on the ground. Possible lifetime bans on prison visits for anyone caught trying to sneak drugs into prisons.
Those are some of the protective measures Gov. Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel outlined Wednesday to combat K2 and other contraband synthetic drugs that made guards and other employees sick at several Pennsylvania prisons last month.
A lockdown, instituted Aug. 29, closed more than two dozen prison facilities to visitors and halted most mail service for 46,768 inmates. It also required all 15,000 employees to don protective gear.
Wetzel instituted it after more than two dozen guards and other employees were treated at work or a hospital for exposure to synthetic drugs, primarily K2, a chemically made drug that can resemble marijuana. The drugs can lead to shortness of breath, dizziness and violent outbursts.
Over the weekend, prison officials partially lifted the lockdown by letting some inmates out of their cells for showers, exercise and medical and dietary care. The prisons remain closed to the outside world until at least next week.
“Clearly, it is not pleasant to stand in front of you and say we have a drug problem in our prisons, but when we send 30 staff to hospitals in three weeks, those are the facts,” Wetzel said at a news conference, streamed live from outside Greene State Prison in the southwest corner of the state.
The lockdown slowed the drug incidents to one since Saturday, Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden said. There have been no outbreaks of violence related to the lockdown, she added.
The goal of the security measures, Wetzel said, is to try to stop all drugs from entering the prison through seven known methods: regular mail, legal mail, outside books and publications, drone flights, and visits from family and friends.
Prison officials could not provide an estimate for how much the plan would cost. The corrections budget is $2.54 billion for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The vast majority of inmates and visitors are not the cause of the ongoing contraband drug problem in the 25 correctional facilities, Wolf said.
“But even one person who successfully smuggles drugs into a facility puts everyone in danger and we have to make sure that stops,” Wolf said.
Mail and books
All mail at prisons will be returned to the sender.
“The sender will know if there are drugs in there so they should be careful — or not [in opening],” Wetzel said. “That’s up to them.”
Prisons will no longer accept or sort inmates’ personal and legal mail. All mail must be sent to a separate address, where it will be scanned and processed before being forwarded to the inmate. The new address is Smart Communications/PADOCInmate, Name/Inmate Number, Institution, P.O. Box 33028, St. Petersburg, FL 33733. For complete mailing instructions, go to the department’s website: www.cor.pa.gov/About%20Us/ContactUsHotlinesandRight-To-Know/Pages/Mailing-Addresses.aspx.
Staff, wearing protective equipment, will open, examine and copy a piece of legal mail in the presence of inmates and video recorders.
The department also will prohibit inmates from buying books and publications from stores. Reading material will be issued in e-books and through a bolstered prison library system. Friends and family will be able to order material through a centralized prison account.
All prisons will be equipped with surveillance equipment to detect drones. The department will have specific security protocols for when a drone is detected, especially if inmates are in the prison yard at the time.
Every facility will be equipped with body scanners to search visitors and staff. In addition, all prisons will get updated ion scanners that can detect trace amounts of drugs. Those ion scanners will be used randomly on people entering a prison.
Staff will be doubled in all visiting rooms immediately. There will be a 90-day moratorium on photos and vending food sales, both of which are common methods for sneaking drugs to inmates, Wetzel said.
Visitors caught passing drugs will be banned from every state prison and the state will share its banned-persons list with county facilities. Inmates who fail urine drug tests will not be permitted to have visitors for six months after one offense, a year after the second. A third failure will result in a permanent ban on visitors.
The measures came a day after the ACLU’s Pennsylvania chapter accused the department of not putting much emphasis on inmates’ health and leaving their families to worry about their safety.
“We share the department’s concern about the health of the staff,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the DOC has failed to provide meaningful transparency in this situation, leaving loved ones of people who are incarcerated uninformed and anxious about what is happening.”
Worden disagreed with the ACLU’s charge, saying in a statement: “The DOC has posted regular updates on the lockdown on social media and the website, as well as responded to inmate family phone calls. We are asking the community, as well as staff and inmates, to be patient so that we may take all the necessary steps to prevent drugs from entering prisons.”