SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania officials say a substance that has sickened more than two dozen corrections employees in the past month and led to an ongoing statewide prison lockdown is believed to be a clear, odorless chemical known as synthetic marijuana.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the liquefied drug, also known as K2, is thought to be coming into facilities soaked into the paper of letters or books. Inmates then eat or smoke it. Synthetic marijuana refers to a class of chemicals that trigger responses in the brain receptors that also respond to the active ingredient in marijuana.
Wetzel told reporters at an unrelated event in Lawrenceville about the investigative findings hours before at least five more workers at two prisons required hospital treatment after falling ill.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said three workers at Somerset State Prison reported feeling sick Thursday night after catching inmates smoking something. Two others later became sick at Greene State Prison. Similar incidents have also occurred in recent weeks at the Albion, Benner, Rockview, Camp Hill, Houtzdale, Fayette and Mercer state prisons, and at the Butler County Prison.
The agency says at least 33 employees have been sickened, starting Aug. 6. Symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and skin tingling. In at least two cases, hospital toxicology tests were negative for drug exposure, a prison spokeswoman said.
The prison system remains on indefinite lockdown, with inmates confined to their cells. Visitors are not allowed and inmate mail is limited to legal correspondence.
Wetzel said the long-term solution will be to scan all mail, and they are working with a vendor about converting to a scanned-mail system.
“We’re really just trying to make sure everybody’s safe and calm everybody down until we come out of this,” Wetzel said. “We don’t want to take a chance. We don’t want to put our staff at risk and, frankly, we don’t want to put our inmates at risk.”
He said guards and all other employees will be trained to protect themselves against hazardous materials, and each prison is getting its own team to handle dangerous substances.
“We just can’t have a situation where we think there’s an issue and we’re just sending staff in there and putting them at risk,” Wetzel said.
In Ohio, nearly 30 people at Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe were treated this week for exposure to a heroin and fentanyl mixture . One inmate was found unconscious, while most others experienced nausea, sweating, numbness, and drowsiness. Staff members fell ill after attending to the unconscious inmate.
JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the cell where the incident occurred was decontaminated Thursday. Health officials also delivered protective equipment and other safety materials to prison employees, and will offer related trainings.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has rescinded its decision to temporarily suspend prison visits. Maryland conducted extensive searches, prompted by concerns about the Pennsylvania and Ohio incidents. The Delaware prison system has also taken security steps.