Official: Long lockdowns can ratchet up tension among prisoners

Cells are shown in a newly cleared wing at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Cells are shown in a newly cleared wing at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

As Pennsylvania’s statewide prison lockdown enters its third day, officers and staff are busy with intense training sessions on how to safely handle the powerful, synthetic drugs that keep finding their way inside via mail and other measures.

Meanwhile, prisoners at all 25 state correctional institutions are essentially spending 24 hours a day in their cells — and that can come with its own challenges for officers.

Prison protocols vary, but when a facility goes into lockdown, it usually means the few freedoms inmates have go away, like time in the yard or access to a gym.

Bill DeWeese — Pennsylvania’s onetime Speaker of the House — said when he did 23 months at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat on corruption charges, there were several one or two-day lockdowns.

“I would think after two or three days, people would become somewhat agitated,” he said.

James Barnacle directs the state Corrections Department’s Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence. He said not only can no one remember a time all the prisons locked down, he’s not sure even lockdowns at individual prisons have ever been indefinite, like the current one is.

Barnacle said DeWeese is right — long lockdowns can lead to bad behavior.

“It’s difficult for me to elaborate on how inmates are going to react to being locked down, especially in this hot weather,” he said. “We’re just going to take it day by day and try to deal with it as it happens.”

But, Barnacle added, he thinks the department has the situation under control.

No timeline has been set to lift the lockdown.

Asked about precedents for its length and scope, a spokeswoman for the DOC pointed to a time last year when Florida locked down its prisons for four days over concerns about potential riots.

The prison system is grappling with a rash of illnesses among employees, all thought to be caused by contact with drugs that have made their way into the prisons through various illicit channels, including the mail, through visitors, and in some cases, through prison staff.

Barnacle said mail is the most common route for the latest cluster of incidents. Often, a piece of paper is soaked in a synthetic cannabinoid or opioid — essentially a cocktail of chemicals with exact makeups that vary, making them hard to identify.

Since August 6, 29 employees have gotten sick in 13 separate incidents at nine different prisons, and that number doesn’t include inmates who have been affected by the same substances.

The DOC is keeping a list of exposure incidents, which officials have said they will update if any other employees get sick.

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