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Inmate mail, visitations targeted in changes at state prisons amid lockdown

Renatta Signorini
198710JohnWetzelDOC
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

Changes to inmate mail, visiting rooms and books are among the steps officials are taking to eradicate drugs from state prisons — which have been on lockdown for the past week after 30 employees became ill after suspected exposure to illicit drugs.

“This plan is not to reduce the amount of drugs, this plan is to eliminate drugs inside our prison,” Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Wednesday outside of a state prison in Greene County, where he appeared with Gov Tom Wolf. “While we may never attain that, we are going to work our butts off” to meet that goal.

All state prisons were locked down Aug. 29. Wetzel said Wednesday that 30 employees were sickened in three weeks at some of the facilities, including Greene, Mercer and Fayette. He believes the illnesses were caused by clear, liquefied forms of marijuana coming into the prisons on paper, such as on letters or pages of books. Inmates then ingest or smoke the paper.

And it isn’t just state prisons that are taking note of clandestine drug smuggling into lockups.

Officials at Westmoreland County Prison in June began photocopying original cards, letters and pictures sent by friends and families to jail inmates because of concerns the mail might contain synthetic marijuana.

The original items sent by mail are destroyed, though photographs will be kept with each prisoner’s personal belongings that are returned upon release, jail officials said.

State officials are targeting ways that drugs get smuggled into prisons. Some of the new protocols are effective immediately. Others will follow within the next few months.

“The vast majority of people who do business with us are not the problem. But because the problem is so severe, we’ve got to take these steps,” Wetzel said.

New protocols include:

• All inmate mail will be sent to a new address, where it will be scanned and processed before being delivered to inmates. Mail currently in state prisons will be returned to the sender.

“This is an unusual step, but the reality is we’re certain there’s drugs in there,” Wetzel said.

• Legal mail will be copied by staff members wearing protective clothing. The process will be videotaped and in the presence of the recipient inmate.

• All prisons will get drone detection technology and two body scanners — one each for visitors and staff. Inmates will be scanned upon commitment and after every visit. A committee is evaluating new protocol for inmate commitments after six employees at SCI Albion were sickened by what is believed to be synthetic drugs while processing a new prisoner.

Scanners that detect trace amounts of drugs are being purchased. Each facility will have two.

• More staff will be placed in visitation rooms.

• There is a 90-day moratorium on photos and vending machines in visitation rooms.

“If a visitor is caught attempting to bring drugs in, they will never visit” a state prison again, Wetzel said.

• Electronic books will replace physical items. Family and friends of inmates will be able to order books through the department.

• A hotline — 717-728-4743 — is open for anonymous tips about drugs in prisons.

“If these steps are insufficient, we are going to take more steps until we get there,” Wetzel said.

Inmates who are caught with drugs or test positive for drug use will face ramifications that include restrictions on visitations.

“If you’re caught with drugs, we’re going to assume it came from the visit room,” Wetzel said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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