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Synthetic marijuana sickened Pa. prison employees, officials say

Megan Guza
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Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

Corrections officials believe synthetic marijuana has sickened more than two dozen employees in state facilities in the past month, and Secretary John Wetzel said Thursday he does not know how long the prison system will remain on lockdown.

“We’re really just trying to make sure everybody’s safe and calm everybody down until we come out of this,” Wetzel said. We don’t want to take a chance. We don’t want to put our staff at risk and, frankly, we don’t want to put our inmates as risk.”

They believe the clear, liquefied forms of marijuana are coming into the facilities on paper, such as on letters or on the pages of books. Inmates then eat the paper or smoke the paper.

“Some of the challenge around this is that one of the ways that it’s coming is it’s a clear, odorless liquid that’s put on paper, so it’s kind of undetectable,” Wetzel said. “It’s just a difficult construct.”

State officials ordered Wednesday to place the 24 state corrections facilities on lockdown, which means inmates must remain in their cells for 24 hours a day, no visitors are allowed, and inmate mail is limited to legal correspondence.

Wetzel gave no timetable for lifting the lockdown but said it will not happen before every staff member is trained in hazardous substance protection and each facility has a dedicated hazmat team. He said the hazmat teams will be in place by next Friday, and the lockdown could be modified.

“Certainly visits and mail will be the last things that come back online,” he said, adding long-term solutions could include scanning each piece of inmate mail.

“We just can’t have a situation where we think there’s an issue and we’re sending staff in there and putting them at risk,” he said.

There have been at least five incidents this month of prison staff members at facilities in Greene, Fayette and Mercer counties becoming ill after contact with a substance. Symptoms have included shortness of breath, dizziness, flushed skin and, in some cases, passing out.

“We have to learn how to act like a surgeon in an operating room – and that’s not just gloving up,” he said. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that anything we touch could possibly be contaminated.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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