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Officers sickened by unidentified substance

August 31, 2018

Two correctional officers from the State Correctional Institution at Somerset who reported feeling dazed and lethargic after escorting an inmate to the prison’s medical department Wednesday were taken by state vehicle to a local hospital, according to state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

The officers were not identified. The inmate may have been under the influence of a controlled substance, she said.

The incident is under investigation, McNaughton said.

Meanwhile, in response to a rash of prison staff members who were sickened by unknown substances over the past few weeks, department Secretary John Wetzel announced Wednesday the immediate lockdown of all state prisons.

“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” Wetzel said in a press release. “Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”

Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association President Jason Bloom agreed with the decision.

“The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association commends the (Gov. Tom) Wolf administration for locking down all state correctional institutions,” he said in a separate press release. “Simply too many of our officers are becoming sick due to contraband being illegally brought into these facilities.”

Wetzel announced the following additional steps, effective immediately and indefinitely:

All prison mailrooms are closed to nonlegal mail until further notice.

Use of personal protective equipment, especially gloves, is mandatory for all employees. The Pennsylvania Department of Health provided additional gloves and personal protective equipment to the prisons.

Training on situational awareness will be held immediately in all institutions.

All visits are suspended for the length of the lockdown.

Wetzel noted that Pennsylvania is not alone in its battle against “illegal substances and employee/inmate sickness.”

In Ohio, prison guards, nurses and inmates were among nearly 30 people treated for possible drug exposure inside the Ross Correctional Institution, according to the Associated Press. The incident began Wednesday morning when an inmate showed signs of a possible drug overdose and others responded to help him. A doctor at the Adena Regional Medical Center in Chillicothe said the symptoms were consistent with fentanyl exposure.

The substance causing the illnesses in Pennsylvania has not been identified.

“Testing of substances takes weeks for us to get the results back,” McNaughton said.

The department is advising employees to use extra caution when parole violators and new inmates are received into the prison system.

“We’re prepared to help our members who have been sickened — but we must put this dangerous problem to an end,” Bloom said. “It’s our hope the steps being taken today will do just that.”

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