HARRISBURG — The Department of Corrections resumed normal operations Monday at all state prisons following a 12-day lockdown to address a growing drug crisis in its facilities that sickened multiple employees.
On Aug. 29, the department took the extraordinary step of initiating a lockdown of all state correctional institutions after a series of cases of staff exposure to synthetic drugs.
Between May 31 and Sept. 1, more than 50 staff members and 33 inmates reported being sickened and were taken to outside hospitals. Toxicology results confirmed the presence of synthetic cannabinoid in multiple instances of staff exposure. Lab tests confirmed inmate overdoses linked to synthetic cannabinoids and other illegal substances.
“This has been a difficult time for staff who became ill by encountering suspected synthetic drugs while simply performing their jobs,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. “It also has been a challenging time for all employees as they were called upon to perform various lockdown-related duties. I am proud of our staff and how they all pulled together as a team. The safety of our staff is paramount to the running of this prison system, so we took this time to calm the system and to train staff so they can remain safe while performing their jobs.”
Wetzel also acknowledged the difficulties the lockdown presented for inmates and their families and friends.
“We realize that lockdowns, especially long ones, cause stress and anxiety,” Wetzel said. “We worked to allow some phone contact during the lockdown to alleviate feelings of uncertainty. We also communicated regularly with inmates to explain the reasons for the lockdown and our plans moving forward. Our plans improve the safety of our system for both staff and inmates.”
During the lockdown, officials enforced a statewide mandatory training on the donning and doffing of gloves, and special team members were trained in the detection, containment and removal of hazardous materials. Additional safety and security measures were announced by Gov. Tom Wolf on Sept. 5.
“I want to personally thank Gov. Wolf and our sister agencies for their continued support of this agency,” Wetzel said. “They understand and appreciate the challenging jobs our corrections employees perform each day in order to protect public safety and to return law-abiding citizens to our communities. Their support is essential as we move ahead with important systemic changes.”
During the lockdown, Gov. Wolf and DOC officials announced the following important changes to DOC processes:
• Immediate elimination of mail processing at facilities using a third-party vendor that will process all non-legal inmate mail.
• Improved safety precautions used when opening legal mail in front of inmates.
• Increased staffing in all visiting rooms.
Temporary modifications to visiting rooms involving vending machines and inmate photos.
• Stricter visiting suspensions for visitors and inmates caught introducing contraband via visiting rooms, including indefinite or even lifetime bans for visitors.
• A bolstered library system and a centralized ordering/purchasing of books for inmates.
• Expansion of drone detection software and capabilities.
• Enhanced inmate commitment/reception protocol.
• Expanded use of body scanners.
Additional and improved Ion Scanners.
• Implementation of a drug hotline where individuals can report information about drugs inside state facilities.
“With today’s first early morning inmate line movements, we began our new normal in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,” Wetzel said Monday. “We are confident that these new and refined tools and protocols will help our employees to detect, monitor and continue efforts to keep drugs out of our facilities.”
Wetzel also has said that he will not hesitate to return the system to a complete lockdown status if incidents resume.
Individuals are encouraged to visit the DOC’s website for details and frequent updates on the changes being implemented.