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PA prisons’ unprecedented security crackdown: 5 things you need to know

State lawmakers want a probe into the Pennsylvania prison policies that eliminate postal mail and book donations, and into the mysterious staff illnesses that triggered the security crackdown.

Protestors outside a fundraiser for Gov. Wolf say the mail policy is devastating family connections.
Protestors outside a fundraiser for Gov. Wolf say the mail policy is devastating family connections.Read moreSAMANTHA MELAMED / Staff

A month after announcing a slate of security measures that have no precedent in a state prison system, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel walked to the front of a South Philadelphia church and faced down a hostile audience. His message to the hundreds of seething community members, mostly friends and families of Pennsylvania's 47,000 prisoners: The initiatives, which collectively cost more than $15 million, were working.

"It's short-term pain for long-term gain," he said at the meeting, organized by the Pennsylvania Black Legislative Caucus. "We had a drug problem. We had a significant increase in drugs, and we had to get drugs out of the facilities."

The measures were necessary, he said, to protect staff from sicknesses related to exposure to synthetic cannabinoids, or K2. And, indeed, the DOC reports the number of such incidents has declined drastically, from more than 50 in August to eight in September. Along the way, the department says, the number of inmate overdoses related to K2 also fell, from 19 to five.

But the policies — including barring book donations and providing inmates photocopies of their mail rather than the originals — are unpopular with families and, lawyers argue, may even be unconstitutional.

Now, some state lawmakers plan to challenge them. "It is not OK. I want to communicate that to the governor and the secretary," Sen. Sharif Street said. "Some of this has to change."

They also expressed lingering questions over the mysterious staff sicknesses that started it all. "We are very concerned with what happened, the processes," said state Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat and chairman of the Black Caucus. "We're looking to see which agency would be the best to do an actual third-party investigation."

Here's what we already know — and what we don't.

1. Could guards’ illness be ‘nocebo’ effect?

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) says it was a novel type of drug called synthetic cannabinoids that sickened guards, either through skin absorption or inhalation. In support of that theory, Wetzel pointed to a Centers for Disease Control study of nine federal agents who described side effects from K2; in that case, they had raided a drug lab and then spent a week cataloging K2 samples with bare hands, often while eating and drinking.

But experts in medical toxicology offered a different diagnosis: "mass psychogenic illness."

They noted the presence of narcotics had not been confirmed at all in 23 out of 29 incidents between May 31 and Sept. 1. And even in cases where it was present, the DOC could not provide any blood or urine tests that showed the drugs were in the sick officers' systems.

"In a word, it's implausible," Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told the Inquirer in September. "One thing we know about [synthetic cannabinoids] is that they don't cause the effects these folks are having. … The symptoms are much more consistent with anxiety."

The DOC disputes the psychogenic-illness theory. Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, called it "asinine."

So for more information, we went to the source — the medical directors of the emergency departments where prison staff were taken. We contacted all the hospitals that treated staff after mass incidents involving four or more victims, according to the DOC's published incident logs. (One, Washington Health System Greene, did not respond.)

Dr. Matthew Glenn, Grove City Medical Center: Eleven staff were transported to GCMC from Mercer state prison in August, with symptoms ranging from nausea to dizziness to lethargy. One was kept overnight for observation. The rest were decontaminated, evaluated and released. Urine screens were completed, but no drugs were detected. "It is inconclusive, but I suspect there is a strong nocebo effect," Glenn said. "That is, if you believe exposure is something that is going to cause you harm, you'll get some negative symptoms. Being that the tox screens were negative, it's hard to prove a drug did this — however, you can't disprove it either."

Dr. Ferdinando Mirarchi, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — Hamot: In August, six staff were rushed from Albion prison to Hamot, where a hazmat team was called in. "They presented with vague complaints. None of them required any significant interventions." Blood work did not test positive for any specific drug — and the mystery substance that precipitated the incident was later found to be a cosmetic powder. "The cause for each of the six patients?" Mirarchi said. "It's likely unknown."

Dr. Surabhi Guar, Uniontown Hospital: About 10 people all told, including six in one mass incident, were rushed to the emergency department from Fayette state prison, but by the time they arrived, they were "pretty asymptomatic." Urine screens were negative, though Guar considers them to be fairly unreliable anyway. But she was doubtful that the illnesses were related to incidental exposure to drugs. "Medically, it doesn't make any sense," Guar said. "I'm not saying people are crazy or making it up: We had people coming with symptoms. But I think psychogenic is a perfect word. I do wonder if some of this is hysteria or anxiety."

2. The ACLU is preparing a federal lawsuit.

Though advocates dislike many of the new policies, they are particularly riled by the new legal mail procedure. They say the system — in which a prison staffer opens legal mail in front of the inmate and photocopies it, setting aside the originals to be destroyed after 45 days — is a clear violation of attorney-client privilege.

The ACLU and others said they've stopped sending mail through the system, which is unlike any other in the nation.

"My greatest fear is that my legal mail will become the reading material of the superintendent or, worse, my opponent," said Leticia Chavez-Freed, a Harrisburg civil-rights lawyer who, before the new policy was enacted, sent out 60 or 70 letters to inmates in any given month. "I currently have cases where guards and superintendents are named defendants."

However, a threatened lawsuit has not yet been filed.

3. Access to books has become a hot-button issue.

To many, access to books seems like a basic human right. To the DOC, books by mail are just another route for inmates to send in paper soaked in K2. So, the department has stopped allowing donations from programs like Books Through Bars, or direct orders from stores like Amazon.

To underscore the danger, the DOC tweeted a photo of a letter it said represented an inmate "describing how to smuggle drugs." Twitter users pointed out it appeared the writer was, in fact, describing how to smuggle a dictionary.

The DOC said that its libraries are more than adequate, and that a system for inmates to request staff order books for them is now up and running.

Department spokespeople also touted a new library of e-books. But the list of 8,800 e-books, accessible only on a prison-purchased $149 tablet, is padded with public-domain titles that are available for free on Project Gutenberg, but cost up to $14.99 in prison. Plus, many of the most-requested books in prison, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, aren't on the list. (The DOC said it's also beefing up libraries, but inmates say there are surprising reasons they tend to avoid them.)

4. Families say false-positives on ion scanners are keeping them apart.

The security overhaul includes a $2 million investment on new ion scanners — controversial devices that are meant to detect trace amounts of narcotics. But families say they're susceptible to false positives and that DOC penalties are unfair: Currently, two different women married to men in Phoenix state prison are facing six-month bans on visiting their husbands. Others do whatever they think it might take to avoid triggering the scanner, from going off their medications to wearing latex gloves so they don't come into contact with any contaminated surfaces. The DOC said the scanners are accurate and are calibrated to account for environmental contamination.

5. Mail’s being diverted to Florida to be scanned — and stored for surveillance.

The state is paying close to $16 million over three years for a mail processing service that scans incoming mail and forwards it to the prisons. One former DOC staffer who declined to be named described a crisis in prison mailrooms, where staff uncovered suboxone strips underneath the flaps of envelopes, crayon drawings purportedly laced with meth and photos with drugs hidden underneath the backings.

"It got to be such a monumental task of sorting mail and trying to test the drugs that are coming in," the former employee said. "Then you get guys in there with drugs, which now gives them power, and you have fights, killings, stabbings over drugs."

But the new system has led some inmates to complain about poor-quality printouts, while others have told their families not to send mail at all, knowing that it will be stored and made searchable for surveillance purposes.

"I'm not comfortable with that anymore," one woman said, explaining why she no longer sends her child's drawings to her husband. "I don't want my 7-year-old autistic child's stuff to be able to be searched in some database in Florida."