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Prison Officials In 3 States Investigating Illnesses Related To Smuggled Drugs


Prison officials in three states are investigating illnesses and deaths they suspect are related to smuggled drugs. Five inmates in Arkansas died this week of apparent overdoses.


Ohio authorities say a mixture of heroin and fentanyl likely caused one inmate to overdose in a prison there. More than two dozen staff also received medical treatment. And in Pennsylvania, authorities took the unusual step of locking down every prison in the state after 29 prison workers were sickened in recent weeks. The state's secretary for Drug and Alcohol Programs, Jennifer Smith, says it's often not clear which drugs are causing problems.


JENNIFER SMITH: We really don't know what substances are out there. Things are being mixed together. Things are being made. We don't know what these substances are.

CHANG: While there's no apparent links between these recent incidents, NPR's Jeff Brady reports it is clear that more potent and deadly drugs from the outside are making their way inside.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In Arkansas, the five inmates who died were at a maximum-security prison called the Varner Unit south of Pine Bluff. Jim DePriest is the assistant director for the Arkansas Department of Correction and says it appears the drug involved was K2, a synthetic cannabinoid.

JIM DEPRIEST: We don't have the actual medical examiner's results on these five deaths, so I'm speculating that these deaths might have been related to the ingestion of illicit drugs.

BRADY: DePriest says smuggling has long been a problem for prisons. In the past, he says, overdoses were usually isolated events, nothing like this. DePriest says the department has tried to educate inmates.

DEPRIEST: We're warning them that this is not something where, if something goes wrong, you get sick or have a hangover or whatever. This stuff can kill you.

BRADY: DePriest says, in Arkansas, no staff have been injured or sickened. But in Ohio, more than two dozen workers, corrections officers and nurses, were treated after an inmate overdosed on a mix of heroin and fentanyl. That incident happened yesterday at the Ross Correctional Institution near Columbus. The investigation into that case continues.

In Pennsylvania, more than two dozen prison workers have been treated this month in a series of incidents that prompted authorities to take the unusual step of ordering a system-wide lockdown. While the investigation continues, K2 and other drugs appear to be the problem. Department of Corrections press secretary Amy Worden says employees seemed to be getting sick just by coming into contact with something a drug-using inmate touched.

AMY WORDEN: You have corrections officers who have had to handle an inmate or their property. We've also found that mailroom employees have been sickened. We've seen nurses being sickened. They obviously have direct contact with our inmates - and also a librarian.

BRADY: Worden says the librarian apparently was sickened while handling contaminated request slips from inmates who wanted reading material. Worden says the goal of the system-wide lockdown is to stop drugs from flowing into the prisons and to get better equipment, such as higher-quality gloves, for staff to use.

AMY WORDEN: And also know how to properly don them so that you're not, you know, touching your face or you're not contaminating somebody else or something else or yourself just in the course of putting on your equipment.

BRADY: The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy also is offering training. Today it released a video for law enforcement, fire, rescue and emergency medical service workers, showing them how to protect themselves. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues, climate change and the mid-Atlantic region. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.