Officials say synthetic drug spike not limited to prisons

Cells are shown at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Cells are shown at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

The still-ongoing lockdown of Pennsylvania’s 25 state prisons has suddenly cast attention on the synthetic drugs thought to be causing a rash of illnesses among guards and staff.

But, officials say, the drugs are an issue outside the prisons, too.

The Department of Corrections said police are still testing samples to see which drugs have made dozens of prison staff sick — but Secretary John Wetzel has said synthetic cannabinoids are the most likely culprit.

Department of Drug and Alcohol Secretary Jennifer Smith said those incidents correspond with an upswell in synthetic drug use generally.

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The department doesn’t yet have hard numbers on how many people have overdosed or become ill from the substances. But in a press conference Thursday, Smith said the problem has actually gotten worse during the crackdown on opioid use.

“[Cracking down on opioids] doesn’t change the number of people who are addicted,” she said. “So now that those substances that they had been using are harder and harder to get ahold of, it makes sense that we’re starting to see an increase in synthetics.”

She added, synthetics can be even more dangerous.

“We really don’t know what substances are out there. Things are being mixed together, things are being made — we don’t know what these substances are,” she said.

This isn’t the first uptick in synthetic drug overdoses the state has seen. Smith pointed to a rash of overdoses related to synthetic cannabinoid K2 in Lancaster this spring. But, she said, this round seems more widespread.

The move to shut down all 25 state correctional institutions over drug concerns is unprecedented in recent memory, according to officials.

However, the Department of Corrections said the problem has been brewing for a while.

“There’s something out there that’s making its way into our prisons,” Spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said soon after the lockdown.

McNaughton said it’s not unheard of for prison staff to fall ill from suspected drug exposure. But this month, the numbers started climbing.

To date, the prison system has had nearly 40 employees complain of potentially drug-related illnesses, though some toxicology reports did come back negative.

Staff are in safety training sessions for the duration of the indefinite lockdown.

Meanwhile, prisoners 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 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.

Asked about precedents for the lockdown’s 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.

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