All 25 of Pennsylvania’s state prisons are indefinitely on lockdown after nearly 30 employees became ill following exposure to an mysterious narcotic substance in the last month, officials said.
But the circumstances of their illnesses are still a mystery. A spokesperson told VICE News that 29 employees from 10 different facilities began reporting symptoms of nausea, dizziness, tingling, and a scratchy throat starting Aug. 6 after they came into contact with inmate belongings.
Most of the employees have since been cleared to return to work, and toxicology reports from the state police lab are just now trickling back in. One report from a patient who got sick on Aug. 13 had come into contact with a synthetic cannabinoid, also known as K2 or spice, according to Susan McNaughton, communications director for Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
But officials say the employees hadn’t actually consumed the drug. “Starting a few weeks ago, we saw an uptick in employees who were feeling sickened after touching inmates' property or escorting inmates,” said McNaughton.
Pennsylvania prison officials said they decided to take emergency action Wednesday amid scattered reports of drug overdoses in prisons elsewhere in the country.
Six more employees from two prisons in Pennsylvania reported similar symptoms of nausea and dizziness on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, one inmate and 27 employees at a prison in Ohio received treatment for exposure to a substance believed to be the powerful opioid fentanyl.
A recent report out of Florida spotlighted the spike in inmate deaths in recent years, believed to be linked to overdoses on synthetic cannabinoids. And two inmates were found dead at Varner Supermax prison facility in Arkansas on Wednesday; the fourth and fifth deaths since just the weekend. Again, those deaths have been linked to synthetic cannabinoid use.
“People in the outside world will drench a piece of paper in liquid, which is hard to detect in the mailroom”
All of these incidents are also reminders of the constant cat-and-mouse game between drug smugglers and state officials when it comes to keeping contraband outside of prison walls.
In Pennsylvania’s case, McNaughton says, officials believe inmates are receiving letters that have been soaked in liquid synthetic cannabinoid.
“What’s happening is that people in the outside world will drench a piece of paper in liquid, which is hard to detect in the mailroom,” said McNaughton. “Another way is through visits, obviously.”
Earlier this week, corrections officers at Smithfield State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania said they searched an inmate who they thought was acting suspiciously. “Upon searching the inmate, an item dropped to the floor which contained a white, orange and blue paper,” a news release stated. “About 20 minutes later, that officer reported experiencing a headache.” The officer was taken to hospital to be evaluated, during which time he became “increasingly disoriented and confused.”
But experts are skeptical that you can get sick simply from touching something that has synthetic cannabinoids on it.
“Unless the law enforcement officer was sucking on the piece of paper, I highly doubt it”
“It’s very unlikely that someone would touch a piece of paper with their hand and absorb any clinically significant amount of synthetic cannabinoid,” said Mark Neavyn, director of the fellowship in medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts. “Unless the law enforcement officer was sucking on the piece of paper, I highly doubt it.”
Regardless, all 25 state facilities are on lockdown indefinitely, visitation rooms have been closed, and all incoming mail, except legal mail, has been suspended.
McNaughton said the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is looking into contracting with a processing company that can take original mail, process it, copy it, and then send copies or electronic images to the inmates.
Synthetic cannabinoids are particularly troubling because their composition and effects can be so unpredictable. “The concentration of the active ingredient(s) can vary significantly between batches or even within the same batch,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has also identified instances where synthetic cannabinoids are laced with other designer synthetic drugs, like “bath salts,” which can also lead to adverse side effects. Unlike THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, synthetic marijuana can cause heart attacks, seizures, hallucinations, aggressive behavior, and even death.
What’s more, it’s widely available, sometimes marketed as “incense” or “natural herbal products” in convenience stores or online, or sold by individual dealers for as little as $10 to $20 a gram, or $1 a joint.
Synthetic cannabinoids like K2 aren’t new. They’ve been on the streets for at least a decade. Bad batches have been linked to scattered reports of mass overdose situations in the past, but they’ve recently been grabbing headlines amid a cluster of mass overdoses nationwide.
For example, more than 100 people were treated for overdoses on K2 around a park in New Haven, Connecticut, a few weeks ago. Witnesses described a dire scene of patients dropping to the ground like flies. In April, Illinois state officials rang alarm bells when they said that synthetic cannabinoid use was tied to 56 cases of severe bleeding, two of which were fatal.
Emma Ockerman contributed reporting.
Cover: This Sept. 7, 2017, file photo shows inmates in a block at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford in Graterford, Pa. (David Swanson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)