Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says he doesn’t know how long the state prison system will remain on lockdown. The department stopped all visits and most mail from going into all state prisons starting Wednesday, after 29 employees were sickened in recent weeks by exposure to smuggled drugs.
Pennsylvania’s lockdown will remain in effect, Wetzel said, until all state corrections employees receiving training on how to protect themselves and every prison in the state gets a Hazmat team.
On Thursday, Wetzel said the smuggled drug appears to be K2, a synthetic cannabis. He said the clear, odorless liquid entered the state’s prisons on papers and books in the mail.
Wetzel said it’s particularly hard to guard against K2. In fact, he said it's the greatest challenge he’s experienced in his 30 years working in corrections.
“The notion of something that’s this difficult to detect coming in—even drug tests don’t keep up with some of this stuff,” he said. "This is one of the more difficult challenges that I can certainly think of."
Staff members who simply touch K2 have experienced difficulty breathing and sometimes break out in rashes or faint, Wetzel said. Inmates, meanwhile, have violent reactions when they ingest the drug, either by eating or smoking it.
All corrections employees are required to wear gloves during the lockdown, and inmates are confined to their cells.
Legal mail is permitted to enter the facilities. Wetzel said his department is negotiating a contract with a vendor who would scan other mail and then provide electronic copies to inmates.
Within Pennsylvania, prisons in the western part of the state have been most affected. Officials in Arkansas and Ohio are also investigating illnesses related to smuggled drugs.