State Prisons Make Changes After Staff Mysteriously Sickened

Aug 23, 2018

Pennsylvania's state prison system is tightening security and revamping procedures after 18 staff members were treated at hospitals for exposure to a yet-unidentified substance at three prisons earlier this month.

In five separate cases between Aug. 6 and Aug. 13, employees exhibited symptoms that required medical treatment at the Fayette, Greene and Mercer state prisons. The Department said all 18 were treated and released.

At Greene State Prison, four guards were hospitalized after becoming sick while searching an inmate's belongings on Aug. 13. The prison was locked down and a hazardous materials team was called in.

Four guards and two nurses were stricken on Aug. 10 at Fayette State Prison. The guards had been searching an inmate's property, and the two nurses became ill while treating them.

The search of a cell at Mercer State Prison on Aug. 6 produced symptoms in five guards and a doctor. One guard was hospitalized overnight.

The prison employees experienced tingling in their limbs or fingers, headaches and dizziness, she said.

In January, more than a dozen staff members at the Allegheny County Jail were hospitalized with similar symptoms.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan McNaughton said illicit substances might be sent to inmates through the mail.

"And so when our staff in the mail room opens the envelope, now they're in contact with this substance," she said.

To prevent this, the DOC will now require prison staff to use protective gear when doing searches or processing mail. The use of body scanners will also be expanded, and McNaughton said they will be used on inmates and visitors who enter the prison.

Three new K9 unit teams will also be introduced around the state, and the Department will purchase overdose-reversing Narcan specifically for dogs.

McNaughton said keeping drugs out of prison will make things safer for both staff and inmates.

"If you keep the drugs out of the system, that's going to make it safe for everybody," she said. "There won't be a black market trade going on in the institutions or debt that can lead to violence."

Officials say assaults on staff increased about 4 percent during the first half of 2018, attacks that may be linked to an increase in the prison drug trade.