An inside look at the effort to keep drugs out of state prisons
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, there are many ways for drugs to get into state prisons. They come in through inmate visits, but they also come in through the mail: tucked inside Bibles, legal documents, family photos or poems.
Over the summer, the DOC locked down all state prisons after 48 staffers were sent to the emergency room after coming into contact with drugs like K2, a synthetic cannabinoid that mimics the effects of marijuana. That number was up from eight staffers in all three prior months.
The DOC changed various policies in the wake of that lockdown, including how it processes mail coming into prisons. According to the DOC, inmates would have people on the outside spray drugs onto letters and then mail them into the prison.
Now, instead of inmates getting original copies of their mail, letters first have to be sent to a processing center in Florida, where a company scans the mail and then essentially emails it to the proper institution back here in Pennsylvania.
That means staffers, including Zack Fahnestock, never come into contact with the originals.
"It's a big help to us because it's one less thing we have to worry about — we don't have to worry about exposures," Fahnestock said.
Fahnestock said those exposures — after which staff would suddenly report heart palpitations, dizziness and other symptoms — were scary.
"It's a definite worry," he said. "I mean, you hear about all the incidents throughout the state and your next thought was, 'When's it going to happen to us?'"
Investigators say the old mail system was simply less secure.
"All of our mailrooms were at risk," said Major William Nicklow, of the Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence . "This stuff was difficult to detect — it looked like a regular piece of paper."
The change hasn't been without controversy. In September, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that inmates' families said mail was delayed or missing or that family photos were too hard to see. DOC has since said it's working out the kinks in the system.
Just last week, the policy also landed the department in federal court after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued the department over the legal mail system.
Legal mail, also known as privileged correspondence, is treated differently than other types of inmate mail, since inmates — like everyone else — have the right to communicate with their lawyers without prosecutors listening in. Before the new policy, prison staffers opened legal mail in front of inmates, briefly checked it for contraband and then would hand the mail to the inmate.
Now, though, staffers open the mail in front of the inmate, check it for contraband, give the inmate a copy and then keep the original in a secure location.
The ACLU called that an "exaggerated, irrational response to a non-problem," saying that it violates inmates' right to communicate privately with lawyers. The ACLU also argued that the DOC hasn't proven that legal mail has brought in drugs.
In a statement to 6 News, the department said it believes the policy will hold up in court.
"Correspondence entering the prison through the legal mail process was subject to the same type of manipulation as the regular mail system," a spokesperson added.
The department says the policies have worked somewhat so far. Staff trips to the ER are down from September, although they're still higher than usual; violence is stagnant; ER trips for inmates have gone down slightly; drug discipline is way down; and drug finds and positive tests are down too.
Apart from the mail system, the DOC is changing other policies as well. By the end of the year, the department expects to have installed body scanners in all state prisons.
The scanners work in a manner similar to body scanners one might see in an airport. Inmates and visitors walk through and staffers can see if they have anything hidden anywhere on their person, including body cavities.
At the Wernersville Community Corrections Center, a halfway house in Berks County, staffers say the body scanner they're using has worked. The facility has seen fewer drug finds and fewer overdoses.
Lt. Jason Somers said that the scanner has made things safer because it means they have to do fewer strip searches.
"And that just puts us in danger because they don't want to be strip searched and we don't want to strip search them," Somers said. "So it might lead to an argument back there and an assault (or a) conflict might happen."
On top of that, Somers said, just having the machine is helping deter people from attempting to smuggle in drugs in the first place.
"Because some see it and they panic," he said. "You know, they don't know what's coming — what we can see, what we can get."