More sickened at SCI-Somerset

September 2, 2018

A prison employee at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset approached a cell to speak with the inmates through a closed door at 10 a.m. Friday. She sensed a strong, sweet odor of smoke.

The woman stepped back from the door and immediately began to feel a tingling sensation on her tongue and lips, according to Susan McNaughton, communications director for the state Department of Corrections. Medical staff responded to the unit and examined the employee, who showed additional signs of exposure to a foreign substance, she wrote in an email.

Later Friday, “another non-officer employee who had contact with the initial employee involved in the 10 a.m. incident experienced similar symptoms and was taken to the hospital for evaluation as a precautionary measure,” McNaughton said.

Then, around 5 p.m., the prison called for an ambulance for another prison employee, but the transport was canceled, according to Somerset County Control.

Like other employees who demonstrated similar symptoms earlier in the week, the woman was transported by state vehicle to Somerset Hospital, McNaughton said. She was the seventh prison employee to become ill at SCI-Somerset this week.

On Wednesday, two correctional officers reported feeling dazed and lethargic after escorting an inmate to the prison’s medical department. Both were taken to the hospital. According to a prison report, they were evaluated and released.

Three more employees fell ill Thursday evening after passing out the evening meal to inmates in a cell. The inmates were smoking an unidentified substance. A fourth employee was sickened while trying to purge bad air from the cell.

“Everyone from Somerset who felt ill from last night’s incidents was treated and released,” she said Friday.

McNaughton said prison officials have not identified the substance.

“Testing is done by a lab and it takes a good while to give us results,” McNaughton said. “So we don’t want to speculate; we want to be sure.”

Some inmates have also fell ill over this period.

“There have been some inmates systemwide who have experienced similar symptoms,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden said. “We do not have a list.”

Pennsylvania state prisons were put on lockdown Wednesday after dozens of employees at 10 prisons required treatment from exposure to mostly unidentified substances. The incidents began Aug. 6. In one instance, in which four correctional officers fell ill Aug. 13 after searching an inmate’s property at SCI-Greene, state police identified the substance as a synthetic cannabinoid.

According to a prison statistical report, the first reported case was in SCI-Mercer, which has had a total of nine employees become ill, followed by SCI-Greene, with eight, and SCI-Somerset, with seven. Other prisons affected included SCI-Benner Township and SCI-Smithfield, both with one, SCI-Rockview and SCI-Fayette, both with two, and SCI-Abion and SCI-Camp Hill, both with four.

Gov. Tom Wolf said the lockdown, which suspends inmate visits, was necessary to ensure the safety of correctional officers and to provide the department with an opportunity to assess and control the situation.

During the lockdown, all DOC mailrooms are closed to nonlegal mail and all employees are being required to use personal protective equipment such as gloves.

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