State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

As prison lockdowns continue, ACLU voices concerns

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Sep 5, 2018 5:10 AM
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Guards walk to work at the Camp Hill state prison. (Photo by AP)

 

(Harrisburg) -- Pennsylvania's 25 state prisons are in their seventh day of lockdown over concerns that powerful drugs are being sent into the facilities and getting staff sick.

There's no end in sight, and so on Tuesday the American Civil Liberties Union began publicly raising some alarms.

The initial lockdown, which began August 29, confined all inmates to their cells and suspended visitors and incoming mail.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said that's still mostly the case, though individual prisons are gradually relaxing restrictions to let inmates take showers and attend certain programs.

The spike in staff illnesses--which appeared to peak in late August--is thought to be caused by powerful synthetic cannabinoids being smuggled into facilities through the mail.

Wetzel said the situation is now improving--though they're still on guard.

"We just, over the weekend, went our first 24 hours without having a staff member exposed, so that really gave us the confidence to start opening back up," he said.

Wetzel said the tight security will end when employees stop getting sick.

But Reggie Shuford, who heads Pennsylvania's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that's still too heavy-handed. In a statement he said the ACLU doesn't think prisons can stop mail and visits "in every state facility every time a staff person becomes ill."

"Unfortunately, the DOC has failed to provide meaningful transparency in this situation, leaving loved ones of people who are incarcerated uninformed and anxious about what is happening," he said--adding, "the public statements on the DOC's own website talk only about the health of staff, with no mention of how many prisoners have become ill."

A spokeswoman for the DOC responded that the department has been issuing "regular updates on the lockdown on social media and the website, as well as respond[ing] to inmate family phone calls."

She added, the lockdown has allowed prisons to devote more time to drug safety training and developing "its most comprehensive system-wide changes to address the drug crisis."

The DOC reports 49 staff members may have been exposed to illegal synthetic drugs since the beginning of August, though not all the toxicology reports came back positive.

Eleven of the incidents have happened since the lockdown started.  

The DOC has also said one prisoner died  at the Camp Hill State Prison over the weekend, though it's not clear whether the death was drug-related. 

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