Exposure to hazardous drugs remains an occupational health risk for many prison employees. The number of suspected cases of prison staff exposure to toxic substances has risen dramatically, with 50 new cases reported in August 2018.
In response to the increasing number of prison employees alleging exposure to contraband drugs smuggled into prisons has resulted in illness, Pennsylvania correctional facilities have begun changing their inmate mail and visitation policies. Such prison changes appear to be reducing sickness in prison employees.
Prison employees can face exposure to contraband drugs which have been smuggled into prisons through the mail system. Deadly mixtures of heroin and fentanyl, synthetic marijuana (which goes by the street name K2), and the prescription opioid drug Suboxone pose significant health risks to prison employees.
Pages of letters or books can be soaked in these drugs to evade detection. Prison staff, including correctional officers, have sought medical treatment for exposure to these types of dangerous narcotics that have been smuggled into the prison.
Starting this past September, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections instituted several new policies to address potential exposure to deadly narcotics. Prison visiting rooms have been staffed with additional employees. A temporary ban on vending machines and photo booths in prison visiting rooms remains in effect, since both vending machines and photo booths have been linked to inmate drug smuggling.
The processing of inmate mail also has changed significantly. Prison employees now open any legal mail in the inmate’s presence and make a photocopy of the mail, which the inmate is allowed to keep. Some prisons additionally provide color copies of photographs.
All original mail is secured for 45 days before it is destroyed. Any non-legal mail received by a state prison is forwarded to a post office box in St. Petersburg, Florida where it is opened, scanned, and forwarded by email to the addressed prison.
Pennsylvania prisons also have banned the direct shipment of books to inmates, and temporarily suspended third-party book donations, to eliminate the potential for illegal drug smuggling. Prisoners will be able to purchase pre-paid books directly from the prison or use e-readers to access the contents of books or magazines.
Other prison changes that will support the state’s continued efforts to reduce prison employee sickness related to drug exposure include the installation of new body scanners, ion scanners, and drone detection equipment. Prison employee advocacy groups seek even more protections for prison staff, including increased use of temporary lockdown procedures to thoroughly check cells for contraband drugs.
The state’s changes to existing prison policies is estimated to cost over $9 million.
Since the policy changes, complaints of exposure to toxic substances by staff have declined. There also has been a decrease in the number of drug overdoses by prison inmates.
However, not everyone is happy with the changes. The American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a legal challenge to the new mail handling system, which it believes violates the civil rights of prisoners due to the potential for breach of lawyer-client confidentiality.
The experienced employment attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser proudly provide defense services to prisons and other correctional facilities. To schedule an appointment with one of our experienced employment lawyers today, call us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. With offices conveniently located in West Chester, Pennsylvania we handle defense matters throughout Philadelphia and Chester County, Pennsylvania.