HARRISBURG – The Department of Corrections (DOC) today provided a 45-day progress update on new protocols and policies announced in September to protect staff, visitors and inmates at Pennsylvania’s 25 state correctional facilities after an unprecedented number of inmate and staff exposures to unknown substances.
The policies were put in place for safety and to eradicate drugs from the prisons. And they are working, according to data released today by the department.
“Working in a prison is a dangerous job,” DOC Secretary John Wetzel said. “Add to that the potential that an employee might be seriously sickened conducting a routine inmate property search or opening mail or that an inmate might overdose or have an adverse, violent reaction to a drug is something DOC cannot and will not tolerate.
“Halfway into the full implementation of these protocols, they are making a difference on all levels of risk to staff, inmates and visitors.”
During the first month of the new policies, (the most recent data available):
- Staff sent to the emergency room for drug exposure dropped from 48 visits in August to eight in September
- Drug finds dropped by 46 percent to the lowest level in more than a year
- Positive drug tests from random inmate drug testing dropped in half to the lowest level in more than a year
- Both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults declined
- The number of inmate misconducts written for drug-related activity were cut in half
Additional data on these and other measures can be found on the DOC’s data dashboard, here.
“When we announced these policies, we intended full implementation to take 90 days, which implied further development of plans as we worked to interact with staff, inmates and visitors to fine tune, analyze and develop fair, complete and most important, safe policies,” Wetzel said.
“One of the most discussed policies is mail, especially books. We hear what inmates, advocates and families are saying; we listened and are addressing those concerns.
“It’s important to reiterate that at no time did our new policies ban books, nor are we charging inmates to read. Our new policies actually expand access for inmates while ensuring safety for all. And we will continue to look for ways to increase access.”
“The new book donation policy, which we will formally announce in two weeks, will meet our security standards and follow the same procedures that book donation organizations currently use,” Wetzel said.
The donations will work as follows: Inmates will sign up for genres of books, which is the current policy of most donation organizations; the DOC will work with donation organizations to locate the genres requested; the books will be shipped to a centralized DOC location, pass through security and be distributed directly to those inmates who made the requests.
“We will be able to fulfill the mission of the donation organizations by providing free books to inmates and we can reach inmates within our institutions who may not have been aware that this opportunity existed, helping to expand access to free books,” Wetzel said.
The new book policy also includes a purchasing component that has already been implemented. Inmates access a kiosk in each facility to request books through centralized ordering. Inmates have requested nearly 4,000 publications – at low prices – since the program started two weeks ago.
In addition, the number one book requested by inmates from the donation organizations is a dictionary. The DOC is addressing this issue by providing free dictionaries to every inmate who requests one.
“The dictionaries will be funded through the Inmate General Welfare Fund,” Wetzel said. “This is non-taxpayer money, funded through vending machine sales, our commissaries and phone calls for the exclusive purpose of benefitting inmates. We are pleased to make the most-requested book available to any inmate who wants one at no cost to the inmate.”
Corrections also provided an update on progress with the development of new policies on mail, body scanners and visitation.
The DOC’s mail contractor, Smart Communications (SmartCOM), began processing mail on Sept. 10 and is receiving, on average 10,000 pieces of mail daily. The mail is processed 24 hours a day, Monday through Saturday.
SmartCOM has hired 52 employees and ordered six mail scanners for the Pennsylvania contract to speed mail delivery to inmates. After the 90-day transition period, the DOC is on track to have all mail in the hands of the inmate within 48 hours of SmartCOM receiving it.
Also, all facilities now have new high-quality color copiers to print photos, greeting cards and children’s drawings before given to inmates.
Regarding legal mail, the DOC continues to explore additional options for processing legal mail, including the development of a secured e-mail system exclusively for legal mail. Currently, all mail (legal and general) originals are stored in a locked container for a period of 45 days.
Correctional facilities without drone detection equipment are expected to have the equipment installed the week of Oct. 29, completing the plan for all facilities to have the capability to detect drones.
Installation of body scanners in all facilities is expected to begin within four weeks to allow for required Department of Environmental Protection and site inspections prior to installation. In the interim, staff training has started and will continue after scanner installation.
Electronic Drug Detection Equipment (EDDE)
To aid in safety and drug detection, in particular of cannabinoids, the DOC has trained staff on the use of Electronic Drug Detection Equipment, or EDDE, also known as ion scanners, which will be on site at all correctional facilities by early November.
Those who seek to get drugs into prisons have become more creative and the new drugs, K2 or synthetic cannabinoids, are odorless, colorless and more potent than seen before and make up 40 percent of drugs introduced into the state prison system. The primary deliver system for these drugs is paper.
“The new EDDE equipment will help in detecting more than 30 types of cannabinoids, while keeping our staff and inmates safe from possible exposure to these dangerous substances,” Wetzel said.
The DOC continues to work on a policy that allows for reinstituting visiting room benefits such as vending machines. As the policy is finalized, facilities are working to accommodate visitors who have requested medical exemptions regarding food.
“The Pennsylvania Association of State Corrections Officers supports these policy changes at the state correctional facilities because they protect our staff, who are dedicated public servants and who deserve to come home safely each day,” said Jason C. Bloom, president.
“After an unprecedented number of staff and inmate exposures to dangerous substances and subsequent 14-day lockdown, we announced these drug interdiction plans, developed with the goal of making our prisons safe for inmates, visitors and staff,” Wetzel said.
“We are pleased to announce progress, an expansion of our book policy and the data that indicates our staff, inmates and visitors are safer today than they were 45 days ago.”