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Valley News Dispatch

Prisons continue search for substance that sickened guards, inmates

Chuck Biedka
| Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, 5:27 p.m.
Michael Coghlan

Technicians at the state police lab may hold the answers to what is sickening prison guards, nurses and inmates at state and local prisons.

Last week, four Butler County Prison guards, two prison nurses and three inmates were stricken.

All were treated at Butler Memorial Hospital and released.

The county prison continues to investigate.

There have been five incidents of an unknown substance causing illness among staff and inmates at the Greene, Fayette and Mercer state prisons since the start of August, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections press secretary Amy Worden said.

The five incidents involved 18 employees. Three incidents happened at Mercer SCI with one each at the other prisons.

No one has died.

In mid-January, 15 Allegheny County Jail employees were stricken by an unknown airborne substance while searching inmates’ cells. Officials there got a tip that some inmates getting paper that had been soaked in some type of illicit substance and dried. Inmates found ways to light the paper and inhale the smoke to get high.

The state corrections department is investigating how the substances were used in state prisons.

“What we’ve found is that whatever this is it is very easily transferred maybe even by the touch of a hand,” Worden said.

Prison officials think the substance is some type of liquid that can be brushed onto paper. It may look much like a water stain on paper,” she said.

Worden said the state is being aggressive in trying to find answers.

She said the corrections department is “working to combat constantly evolving threats, particularly those involving illicit, harmful substances” and that staff and inmate safety is paramount.

All corrections department mailroom employees currently wear masks and gloves as a precaution, she said.

Also, the department is training in-house security teams in hazardous materials response.

“That includes enhanced training in the use of personal protective gear for the majority of institutional staff, including all corrections officers, maintenance, and food staff,” Worden said.

The idea is to “effectively respond to the changing nature of more powerful substances being introduced and to ensure the use of protective gear when conducting searches and handing inmate mail or other items.”

The department is buying more protective gear such as respirators special gloves and it is testing a body scanner to address contraband that might be entering the prisons.

A scanner has been installed at the state prison in Coal Township on a pilot basis and there have been promising results, she said.

“The agency is now actively looking to install body scanners at all institutions to be used in a variety of ways, including after inmate visits to ensure contraband does not enter the institutions,” Worden said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka.

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