Pa. DOC: Drugs sickening staff, inmates are entering through mail
A statewide lockdown started Wednesday is being used to train staff on how to handle suspected drugs
By Steve Esack
The Morning Call
ERIE COUNTY, Pa. — On Wednesday, a guard, two nurses and a doctor fell ill and were taken to a hospital after coming into contact with a parole violator who was being processed back into Albion State Prison in Erie County.
On Tuesday, officers found a Suboxone strip — a sometimes abused opioid withdrawal drug — on an inmate, while another inmate earlier in the week defecated a balloon filled with synthetic marijuana at Benner Township State Prison in Centre County.
And on Sunday, an officer “became increasingly disoriented and confused” after touching a white, orange and blue piece of paper an inmate dropped at Smithfield State Prison in Huntingdon County.
Those are among 29 recent incidents of staff exposure to synthetic drugs documented on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections website. The incidents prompted Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Wednesday to put all 21 state prison facilities on lockdown for the first time in recent memory. All prisons are closed to visitors and mail service, except the delivery of legal papers, has been halted for 46,768 inmates.
Synthetic drugs are entering the prisons through the mail and the only way to stop it is to cut off delivery, said Jim Barnacle, director of special investigations and intelligence at the Corrections Department. The lockdown is being used to train staff on the need to wear protective gloves and masks, and on how to handle suspected drugs, he said, adding there is no timetable to lift the lockdown.
On Tuesday, two Rockview State Prison clerks reported feeling ill after processing outside mail and inmates’ internal forms, department records show. The clerks were taken to a hospital for treatment and the building where they worked was closed.
The drugs — primarily K2, a synthetic form of marijuana — invading prisons are coming from communities dealing with the same problems.
In recent weeks, hospitals have reported an increase in emergency room visits and overdoses believed to be linked to K2, said Ray Barishansky, the Health Department’s deputy secretary leading the Wolf administration’s Opioid Operational Command Center.
“We are seeing it statewide,” Barishansky said Thursday at a news conference in the state Capitol.
The synthetic drugs are being made in domestic labs and imported from Mexico and China, said Capt. Joseph Sokolofski, director of the state police’s Drug Law Enforcement Division. The chemicals used to make the drugs are constantly changing to stay ahead of legal prohibitions, he added.
K2, spice and other greenish lab-made cannabinoids look like natural marijuana. It doesn’t cause the same reactions, however.
The THC compound in natural marijuana can cause poor muscle coordination, relaxation, delayed mental and physical reactions, and increased appetite, according to federal research. Natural marijuana without THC is used in Pennsylvania and other states as a clinically legal drug to treat certain ailments.
The synthetic stuff, however, can cause violent outbursts, delusions, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, paranoia and suicidal thoughts, among other affects, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
And it is so potent its effects can transfer to someone who accidentally touches it.
Barishansky warned police and first responders to take extra precautions, such as wearing gloves.
The rise in synthetic drugs in Pennsylvania and other states is a symptom of the nation’s ongoing prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, said Jennifer Smith, Drug and Alcohol Programs secretary.
As Pennsylvania has made it harder to get opioids by capping and monitoring prescriptions, addicts are switching to synthetics, she said. She warned the public to call authorities for help if they suspect someone is showing symptoms of synthetic drug use.
“In today’s world, we don’t know what substance people are using,” she said. “Don’t try to diagnose or guess what the substance is.”