Pennsylvania prison officials say they are seeing positive results from changes to mail and visiting policies meant to address a slew of incidents in recent months that caused dozens of corrections officers and other employees to seek medical help for suspected exposure to synthetic marijuana.
The agency says cases of suspected staff exposure have plummeted since Sept. 6, when new policies were announced. There had been more than 50 instances in the prior month, but only eight since the start of September. Officials said all have been cleared to return to work.
Drug overdoses among prisoners have fallen, and investigators believe illicit drugs have become scarcer inside the system, where synthetic marijuana and Suboxone and its generic equivalents are by far the most common problem.
"Prices have increased pretty dramatically," said Maj. William Nicklow, head of the Corrections Department's investigations and intelligence bureau. "They've doubled and tripled in some cases."
There has also been a recent spike in the number of visitors caught trying to smuggle in drugs, which Nicklow said "is a direct result of us cutting off the mail avenue."
In Ohio, where nearly 30 people were treated for exposure to a heroin and fentanyl mixture, authorities have also been taking measures to stem employee exposure to contraband drugs but correction officers are demanding they do more.
Synthetic marijuana, technically synthetic cannabinoids and also called K2, refers to a class of chemicals that trigger responses in the brain receptors that also respond to the active compound in marijuana. Suboxone, a prescription drug that contains opioids and is used to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, is commonly smuggled in prisons.
"There are fewer incidents," said Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, "but it's still too early to tell if we are actually curtailing the introduction of drugs."
Staff has been increased in Pennsylvania prison visiting rooms, and there is a temporary ban on vending machines and photo booths, which have been linked to drug smuggling.
The prisons have revamped how incoming mail is processed, although the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania says it is preparing a legal challenge over the new practice for handling mail from lawyers.
Prison workers now open legal mail in the inmate recipient's presence, copy it and give the inmate a photocopy. The prison system keeps the original secured for 45 days before destroying it.
ACLU lawyer Vic Walczak said his organization, which gets about 800 complaints annually from Pennsylvania state prisoners, has determined it can no longer assume legal mail remains confidential. He said the new process compromises attorney-client privilege.
"That document could be in some envelope in some bin, accessible to unknown people, and that simply is not a risk we can take," Walczak said.
All non-legal mail must now be sent to a post office box in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a vendor opens, scans and forwards it by email to the prison where the addressee is housed. At Camp Hill, mail handlers print out up to 4,000 pages each day, including color copies of photos, and convey the printouts to inmates.
In Ohio, talks are going on after the group that represents prison guards demanded that more be done to protect them.
"We are alarmed by the escalation of drug use, especially opioids, inside our prisons and have concerns about the risk they pose to the safety of our staff," union president Chris Mabe said.
The union's demands include a temporary lockdown and clearing out of cells to check for contraband at Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, where staff members fell sick while tending to an unconscious inmate in late August.
Ohio authorities say a number of steps are underway or under consideration, including distribution of naloxone and protective equipment, training on hazardous drug exposure, and evaluation of procedures for searches, mail, visits and packages.
Pennsylvania prison officials believe smugglers have been soaking the pages of letters and books with synthetic marijuana to evade detection. As a result, Corrections will no longer allow direct shipment of books to inmates, but instead will purchase pre-paid books for inmates.
The state also has expanded the use of e-readers, which about a third of the inmates have, to allow them to be used for books and magazines. They had previously been restricted to music, games and a form of email. The prison system has also stopped third-party book donations but may resume them in some form. The prison libraries are also expanding what periodicals they offer; they each typically contain more than 10,000 books.
In the first day alone last week, the Corrections Department said, inmates downloaded about 1,600 e-books, which typically cost $3 to $24 apiece.
Prison officials say the new efforts, which also include body scanners, ion scanners and drone detection, are expected to cost more than $9 million this year.