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Wolf Administration takes steps to improve safety, security in state prisons

“The safety and security of staff and inmates is paramount to the Department of Corrections,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. “Whether the threat is drugs or staff assaults, the agency is working vigorously to combat these threats on many fronts.”
The DOC is redoubling its efforts to address the evolving threats, particularly those involving illicit, harmful substances and the violence that can be connected to their illegal trade.
The DOC has developed a multi-point plan to respond to these new threats to safety and security within the facilities:
  • Implementing new training in the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the majority of institutional staff - including all corrections officers, maintenance, and food service staff who handle inmate clothing or property – to ensure the use of protective gear when conducting searches and processing inmate mail or other items.
  • Training in-house Fire Emergency Response Teams (FERT) in hazardous material response.
  • Increasing the inventory of protective gear, including purchasing special gloves and respirators to ensure that staff have greater protection when handling potentially hazardous material.
  • Purchasing safety disposal equipment for unknown substances, including an appropriate container and bags that can be sealed for use in the mailrooms to safely secure and dispose of questionable items.
  • Expanding the use of body scanners at state prisons and community corrections centers. The DOC has installed body scanners at SCI Coal Township and soon SCI Huntingdon on a pilot basis. The Community Corrections Center at Wernersville purchased a body scanner after experiencing promising results. The agency plans to install body scanners at all institutions to be used following inmate visitation to ensure contraband does not enter the institutions.
  • Reviewing procedures for inmate mail processing to identify better means to safely and efficiently detect and divert contraband before it is delivered to the inmate population.  Attempts to introduce narcotics through the mail have increased significantly in recent years.  Illicit substances are often secreted under stamps, in pictures or saturated into the paper itself, making detection of drugs a time-consuming and difficult undertaking.
  • Purchasing K9 Narcan auto injectors to be available for use on drug-sniffing K9s.
  • Expanding the K9 unit by three teams dedicated to searching community corrections facilities. 
The Department of Corrections is not immune to the drug epidemic that has affected record numbers of individuals on the outside, one that has been made more complex and more dangerous to those simply exposed to the drugs by the introduction of various synthetic compounds.
Since the beginning of August, 18 staff members at three institutions in western Pennsylvania were sickened by exposure to an unknown substance. The Pennsylvania State Police is currently conducting testing on samples of the substances to determine their identity.
As new toxic substances are introduced that are more difficult to identify, the DOC is working to eliminate the avenues for contraband to enter the system. The DOC believes there is a link between increased drug trade in prisons and the uptick in violence, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.
The staff assault rate has inched up by 4 percent in the first half of 2018, but the overall downward trend in the staff assault rate continues, remaining lower today than it was 25 years ago.
DOC is confident that introducing new training and safety measures to limit the introduction of contraband will reduce potential exposure and further drive down the number of assaults.
“Prison staff, especially corrections officers, risk their lives on a daily basis,” said Tabb Bickell, the DOC’s executive deputy secretary for institution security. “We are moving quickly and deliberately to make sure they have all the available tools and training to ensure their safety.”
Earlier this year, following the fatal assault on Sgt. Mark Baserman, the DOC instituted new staff training protocols in violence prevention and response, instituted weekly intelligence briefings, added dedicated intelligence lieutenants at each facility, and contracted with an information technology firm to enhance risk assessment especially in predicting violence.
The Department of Corrections continues to explore avenues to increase the safety and security of its staff, inmate population, and the public. 
MEDIA CONTACT: Susan McNaughton, 717-728-4025
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