Prisons Shutdown Over Possible K2 Exposure

By Keri Blakinger 09/04/18

Some experts question whether it was possible to get sick from passing exposure to the synthetic drugs in question.

Prison guard with keys facing inmate in cell

Pennsylvania prisons have begun letting up on the systemwide lockdown sparked late last month by a series of alleged drug exposure incidents officials blamed on synthetic marijuana soaked into books and letters. 

More than three dozen guards at 10 of the state’s 25 prisons were sickened over the course of a month, corrections officials told Penn Live. None of the staffers needed extended hospital stays, but in response, on Wednesday the prison system cut off all visitation and non-legal mail and locked inmates in their cells indefinitely. 

“We're really just trying to make sure everybody's safe and calm everybody down until we come out of this,” the state’s Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the Associated Press last week. “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.”

Synthetic marijuana—also known as K2—is clear and odorless, and officials believe it was snuck into the facility via drug-drenched letters and books sent to inmates. 

“Mail is one of the main ways people get drugs into the institutions,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sue McNaughton told the Washington Post. “Individuals will take a piece of paper, soak it in a drug, let it dry, write on it, then send it. Our mailroom staff opens up mail and searches for contraband, exposing them to it.”

Workers at prisons from Somerset State to Albion to Mercer reported symptoms like dizziness and skin tingling. In at least two instances, however, drug testing came back negative when the staffers went to the hospital. 

But some experts questioned whether it was possible to get sick from passing exposure to the synthetic drugs in question.

“It’s very unlikely that someone would touch a piece of paper with their hand and absorb any clinically significant amount of synthetic cannabinoid,” Dr. Mark Neavyn, a medical toxicology expert at the University of Massachusetts, told Vice News. “Unless the law enforcement officer was sucking on the piece of paper, I highly doubt it.”

On Saturday, officials began easing the facility restrictions ever-so-slightly, at least bringing back showers and recreation for max inmates, according to Penn Live. Mail and visiting restrictions are still in place and authorities haven’t offered a timetable yet for when those measures might end. 

Even as the state lock-ups started getting a grip on the situation, similar problems cropped up at a county jail in the western part of the state. Allegheny County jail went on lockdown after 11 employees were reportedly sickened by an unknown substance late Sunday, according to NBC Philadelphia. The workers were all taken to a local hospital for evaluation and released.

One state over, the Ohio prison system battled its own alleged drug exposure scenario after close to 30 people at one prison were treated for exposure to heroin and fentanyl, according to the AP. The incident started when one inmate was found unconscious on Wednesday. 

Others, including staff, reportedly felt nausea, sweating and numbness. It’s not clear how the others were actually exposed to the drug but ultimately more than 30 prisoners were evacuated from the facility, and a hazmat team responded to clean up, NBC Philadelphia reported.

Amid the problems in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Delaware prison system bumped up security, and Maryland at one point announced a decision to temporarily cut off visitation—though officials later relented and instead bumped up searches.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.