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15 employees in Pa. prison sickened while searching for contraband

An unknown airborne substance sickened at least 15 Allegheny County Jail employees who searched inmates' cell


By Megan Guza
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

PITTSBURGH — An unknown airborne substance sickened at least 15 Allegheny County Jail employees who searched inmates' cell this week, and three food-service workers were caught with contraband at the jail, according to Warden Orlando Harper.

The jail employees were sickened while searching three different areas of the jail. No inmates in those areas experienced similar symptoms as the employees, Harper said.

The first illnesses occurred Tuesday when jail employees searched the jail's maximum-security E pod. Officials received a tip that some inmates there were obtaining pieces of paper that had been soaked in some type of illicit substance and dried, Harper said. The inmates found ways to light the paper and inhale the smoke to get high, an informant told officers.

The search began at about 3:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., three employees involved in the search began vomiting and experiencing dizziness and chest tightness, according to Harper. Not long after that, five more employees involved in the search began experiencing similar symptoms. All eight were taken to a hospital. They returned to work to finish their shifts after being discharged, Harper said.

More jail employees became ill during two searches Wednesday.

Harper said a search in the jail's F pod at about 5 p.m. resulted in one corrections officer exhibiting the same symptoms as the employees the day before. That officer was taken to a hospital, cleared by medical staff and discharged.

At 7:30 p.m., six employees became ill after searching another area in the jail's E pod, Harper said. Three corrections officers, a sergeant and two medical staffers experienced elevated heart rates and blood pressure. They were taken to a hospital, cleared and discharged, he said.

Allegheny County Police are investigating the three incidents, Harper said.

Separately, a search of food service workers Wednesday afternoon resulted in two workers being removed from the facility and one being charged with a felony.

Harper said officers found two Summit Food Service employees with contraband “like notes” on them during a physical search, and one of those workers had trace amounts of narcotics on them. They were removed from the facility and had their security clearances revoked for violating jail policies. They have not been charged with any crimes, according to Harper.

A third Summit employee, Daynell Henderson, was caught with a small amount of suspected marijuana in a small baggie wrapped in paper. She was charged with a felony count of carrying contraband. Her security clearances also were revoked.

A county spokeswoman the marijuana discovered is likely not what sickened the employees.

“Our policies and procedures are always under constant review and are strengthened, as appropriate to improve our processes,” Harper said. “”That is certainly the case with this specific issue as we continue to look closely at incidents such as these to determine how we can improve what we do and prevent a recurrence of these issues.”

©2018 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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