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After an Albion, Pa., prison rushed five employees to the hospital on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ordered a statewide lockdown of its prison system.

The Albion episode was one of 17 cases that have terrorized the western part of the state since early August. Twenty-nine prison staff members have been hospitalized from “unknown substances” and nine prisons have been affected, two on Wednesday morning, according to Sue McNaughton, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Communication Director. One employee was kept overnight.

Effective Wednesday, she said, all state prisons were locked down indefinitely, all visits suspended, and all mail rooms closed for nonlegal mail. “It’s definitely going to be more than a day,” she said. “It’s going to be a good while.”

The department has been combating violence and drugs in its 25 Pennsylvania facilities.

Last week, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced new protocols to detect narcotics and other illicit substances, including purchase of body scanners for processing new inmates and expanding the unit dedicated to searching community corrections facilities.

“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” Wetzel said Wednesday. “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.”

Affected employees have reported feeling sick after routine activities like searching a cell or escorting an inmate through the prison, with symptoms like dizziness, lethargy, scratchy throats, and headaches, according to McNaughton.

The mail room, she said, has been particularly dangerous.

“Mail is one of the main ways people get drugs into the institutions,” said McNaughton. “Individuals will take a piece of paper, soak it in a drug, let it dry, write on it, then send it. Our mailroom staff opens up mail and searches for contraband, exposing them to it.”

The department is looking into a new mail processing system. For now, it has made the use of personal protective equipment such as gloves mandatory and will begin training on institutional awareness. Staffers have also been advised to use extra caution with new inmates and parole violators.

“Just like the community is suffering, the prisons are suffering from the opioid epidemic,” said McNaughton. “We’re not alone in this battle.”

Wednesday’s lockdown came a day after a crisis in Ohio, with nearly 30 prison employees exhibiting signs of drug overdose at an Ohio Correctional Institution. The suspected cause was fentanyl, a synthetic opioid about 50 times more powerful than heroin.

More than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary 2017 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is a 9.5 percent increase from 2016, a rise driven largely by deaths from fentanyl and carfentanil, an even stronger opioid typically used as a large-animal tranquilizer.

Since Aug. 6, Pennsylvania has sent out lab testing in all 17 cases. Results have only returned for an Aug. 13 incident, where four officers at SCI Greene, a supermax facility near Waynesburg, were hospitalized after searching an inmate’s property. The labs tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids.

The department is still investigating whether all cases are related, however the state’s Opioid Command Center is involved.

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