Cops, Courts and Fire Government

12-Day State Correctional Institution Lockdown Lifted

A lockdown notice outside a state correctional institution last week.
Credit: PA Internet News Service

Pennsylvania correctional institutions reopened for visitors and resumed normal operations Monday after a 12-day lockdown.

The statewide lockdown came after more than 50 staff members and 33 inmates were sickened by the presence of synthetic cannabinoids and other illegal substances between May 31 and the start of this month. Toxicology tests, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, confirmed staff exposure and inmate illnesses were linked to drugs.

The lockdown was called after the crisis began receiving additional attention from state officials. In recent weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf has met with corrections workers and the department has increased efforts to stop the spread and smuggling of drugs.

“This has been a difficult time for staff who became ill by encountering suspected synthetic drugs while simply performing their jobs,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement. “It also has been a challenging time for all employees as they were called upon to perform various lockdown-related duties. I am proud of our staff and how they all pulled together as a team. The safety of our staff is paramount to the running of this prison system, so we took this time to calm the system and to train staff so they can remain safe while performing their jobs.”

Corrections officers and facility staff received mandatory training on personal protective equipment and special teams were trained in  the detection, containment, and removal of hazardous materials during the lockdown.

Officials announced the following changes to state corrections during the lockdown:

  • Immediate elimination of mail processing at facilities using a third-party vendor that will process all non-legal inmate mail.

  • Improved safety precautions used when opening legal mail in front of inmates.

  • Increased staffing in all visiting rooms.

  • Temporary modifications to visiting rooms involving vending machines and inmate photos.

  • Stricter visiting suspensions for visitors and inmates caught introducing contraband via visiting rooms, including indefinite or even lifetime bans for visitors.

  • A bolstered library system and a centralized ordering/purchasing of books for inmates.

  • Expansion of drone detection software and capabilities.

  • Enhanced inmate commitment/reception protocol.

  • Expanded use of body scanners.

  • Additional and improved Ion Scanners.

  • Implementation of a drug hotline where individuals can report information about drugs inside state facilities.

“We realize that lockdowns, especially long ones, cause stress and anxiety,” Wetzel said. “We worked to allow some phone contact during the lockdown to alleviate feelings of uncertainty. We also communicated regularly with inmates to explain the reasons for the lockdown and our plans moving forward. Our plans improve the safety of our system for both staff and inmates.”

Wetzel warned that a full lockdown could return if drug-related incidents return, adding the problem is the “new normal” for his department.

Bucks County officials said recently that they have not seen the widespread problems encountered at the state level but were taking precautions to protect staff and inmates.

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