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Allegheny County Jail ‘on alert’ for how inmates sneak in contraband, warden says

September 30, 2018

The Allegheny County Jail in Downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, February 25, 2013. Tribune-Review

Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper said Monday the facility is constantly on alert for ways that inmates may sneak illegal substances and items into the jail and what that contraband might be.

Eleven employees became sick Sunday night from a mysterious odor or substance at the facility.

The employees -- nine corrections officers and two medical staff -- were treated and released from an area hospital, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said in a news release. The staff members started getting sick at 10 p.m. Sunday.

The jail is on lockdown until further notice.

“No determination has been made as to what has caused it, but it is being treated similarly to the issue at the state correctional institutions,” Downs said in the release.

Harper issued a statement about the lockdown Monday night. He did not provide new details about what caused the employees to be sick.

Harper said that a lockdown means that inmates aren’t allowed visits and must stay in their cells. All programs for jail inmates are cancelled.

The jail is being search for contraband, Harper said. Staff members are interviewing inmates, Downs said. County police are investigating.

“The issue of contraband is one that is faced by jails and prisons throughout the country, and not unique to Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, or the Allegheny County Jail,” Harper said in the statement. “As jail officials, we are constantly on alert for ways that individuals get contraband into the facility, and to try to determine what that contraband may be.”

Harper said the jail determined that inmates were sneaking in contraband on pieces of mail. The mail is now photocopied and only the copies are provided to the inmates. Paperback books, magazines and newspapers must be sent to the jail directly from the publisher to avoid them being used as a vehicle for contraband, Harper said.

Cells are searched. The jail started using an Ion Mobility Scanner to detect small amounts of particles like drugs or explosives, Harper said.

“Our policies and procedures are always under constant review and are strengthened, as appropriate, to improve our processes,” Harper said in the statement. “That is certainly the case with this specific issue as we continue to look closely at incidents such as this to determine how we can improve what we do and prevent a recurrence of these issues.”

The state Department of Corrections has shared information regarding its lockdown with the county jail, Harper said.

All of the state’s 24 correctional institutions were locked down last week after more than a dozen employees at some of those locations became sick. Corrections officials believe the culprit is synthetic marijuana that may be coming into the facilities on paper. Inmates then eat the paper or smoke the paper.

At the state prisons, inmates must remain in their cells for 24 hours a day, no visitors are allowed and inmate mail is limited to legal correspondence.

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