Those developing safety and security protocols couldn’t have imagined just a decade ago the ways in which drugs and other contraband can be smuggled into prisons today.
NPR reported last fall that drones have been spotted dropping contraband into prison yards in more than a dozen states — and among the fears is that weapons could be “delivered” in this fashion.
And then there is the presence of drugs soaked into paper within books and letters that inmates then smoke or eat. That’s what officials said was happening over the past few weeks in state prisons across Pennsylvania with K2, a synthetic cannabinoid blamed for more than two dozen prison employees falling ill. The situation prompted a statewide lockdown of prisons that is still in effect but could end this week.
The K2 episodes have brought new attention to an ongoing problem. From January to June of this year, 2,034 drug incidents involving 1,082 inmates were recorded by the department, with 40 percent of the drugs introduced to the prisons being synthetic cannabinoids.
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The state Department of Corrections, in acting to catch up to the technological advances from a criminal element that always seems one step ahead, announced this week a number of changes to combat the drug problem.
First was the elimination of mail processing at state prison facilities. All inmate mail is now being sent to a central processing facility where it will be opened, scanned and emailed back to the prisons, where the mail will be printed and delivered to inmates.
A local corrections officer, who wants to remain anonymous but who has been vocal about the influx of drugs, noted inmates at state correctional facilities are permitted to purchase and use tablets while incarcerated. (They cost $147.) Also, inmates can receive emails, which are subject to review for appropriate content.
With that, the local CO suggests eliminating all incoming mail; let the inmates communicate through email only, he said.
He said the DOC was warned two years ago about the kind of situation that developed recently with K2.
“Now we are paying for it,” he said.
The DOC did say it will begin a transition to ebooks and a DOC library system through which inmates can request a book.
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SCI-Coal Township has not been immune to the problem of drug exposure. On June 3, a staff member came in contact with a powdered substance and began feeling ill. Other staff administered a dose of Narcan and the person was transported for treatment at Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital. A test determined the substance was fentanyl.
We do believe the DOC is serious about protecting its employees. Yet we were concerned last fall when we reported how an internal document indicated fentanyl was found in SCI-Coal Township the same day as a suspected overdose of an inmate who died two days later. While his death was referred to in one internal document as “inmate death drug overdose,” another prison document, an inmate query summary, listed the death as “Deceased: Natural.”
To effectively move forward in addressing this epidemic, the new protocols are a positive step. But the DOC also needs to be clear and honest with its employees and the public when it comes to reporting on deaths and other health issues among the prison population.