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Pennsylvania prisons on lockdown as mystery illnesses probed

PITTSBURGH — A type of synthetic marijuana could be causing the widespread staff sicknesses that have prompted a lockdown at all state correctional institutions, the head of Pennsylvania’s prison system said Thursday. Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made the comment in Pittsburgh while speaking at a news conference about an unrelated pilot program to help inmates with re-entry to their communities.


All DOC state prisons are locked down.

• All DOC mailrooms are closed to non-legal mail until further notice.

“Let’s face it, we’re in the most significant opioid crisis we’ve ever had,” Wetzel said. “Obviously, one of the elephants in the room is we just locked down the entire prison system yesterday because we’ve had 29 staff members exposed to some drug that’s likely some K2 kind of stuff, so we’re in a real crisis.”

Since Aug. 6, employees at 10 state prisons have required treatment from exposure to a yet-unidentified substance. Symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and skin tingling.

On Wednesday alone, two guards at SCI Somerset and several guards and medical staff at SCI Albion reporting feeling ill. The statewide lockdown went into effect as that news was announced.

The Department of Corrections says it doesn’t know how long the lockdown will last.

In the meantime, it’s suspending prison visits, closing mailrooms to non-legal mail, using extra caution with newly arrived inmates and requiring all employees to use gloves and other protective equipment.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


Below is a statement released by the state Department of Corrections.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced the immediate lockdown of all state correctional institutions because of reports of multiple staff members sickened by unknown substances over the past few weeks.

“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” Secretary Wetzel said. “Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”

Wetzel announced the following steps, effective immediately and indefinitely:

• All DOC state prisons are locked down.

• All DOC mailrooms are closed to non-legal mail until further notice.

• Use of personal protective equipment, especially gloves, is MANDATORY for ALL employees.

• Training on situational awareness will be held immediately in all institutions.

• All visits are suspended for the length of the lock down.

Staff also are being advised to use extra caution when parole violators and new commits are received into the prison system.

This state prison system is not alone in its battle against illegal substances and employee/inmate sickness. It was reported just today that 20 correction officers and inmates at Ross Correctional Institution (Ohio) experienced possible opioid overdose symptoms as well.

“We will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of our staff,” Wetzel said. “The steps taken today, in addition to those announced last week, demonstrate the Wolf Administration’s commitment to the safety and security of all commonwealth employees.

“The state’s Opioid Command Center is giving complete support to this action. And Corrections thanks all state agencies for their support, especially the Pennsylvania Department of Health, for providing additional gloves and personal protective equipment.”

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