Dozens Treated for Apparent Drug Exposure at Prisons in Ohio and Pennsylvania

Officials do not believe the incidents are related

Corrections authorities in Ohio and Pennsylvania on Wednesday investigated inmate and staff exposure to drugs and chemicals in what appeared to be unrelated incidents that nevertheless underscored the continuing issue of contraband drugs inside the nation's prisons and jails.

In Pennsylvania, the state prisons were on a lockdown precipitated by 29 employees at 10 prisons requiring treatment in recent weeks from exposure to a yet-unidentified substance described in some cases as a liquid synthetic drug.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced the step Wednesday, the same day that about a half-dozen staff at Somerset and Albion state prisons reported feeling ill. Symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and skin tingling.

In Ohio, prison guards, nurses and inmates were among the nearly 30 people treated for possible drug exposure inside Ross Correctional Institution. The incident began around 9 a.m. Wednesday when an inmate showed signs of a possible drug overdose, said patrol spokesman Lt. Robert Sellers.

As officers and medical responders arrived, a total of 28 individuals, including 23 guards, four nurses and an inmate, were treated through the administration of naloxone, a drug used to combat overdoses caused by opioids such as heroin or fentanyl, Sellers said. They were taken to Adena Regional Medical Center in Chillicothe for evaluation.

At the hospital, Dr. Kirk Tucker said the symptoms were consistent with exposure to fentanyl. He said an inmate was unconscious and not breathing on his own when he was admitted to the hospital Wednesday but was expected to be fine.

Most other patients experienced nausea, sweating, numbness, and drowsiness. Tucker said the sickest individuals were those who responded to the inmate's bedside.

One Ohio inmate was treated at the scene and not transported. Sellers said the patrol made 300 doses of naloxone available if needed. The prison is about 44 miles (71 kilometers) south of Columbus. Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were among those investigating with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, said DEA spokesman Wade Sparks.

A mixture of heroin and fentanyl was identified as the substance in the Ohio jail, troopers said. 

Fentanyl is considered several times more powerful than heroin, and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide, sometimes on its own, but often mixed with heroin. Law enforcement officers routinely now put on gloves when responding to overdoses to avoid possible exposure.

On Thursday, the DEA plans to release a new training video covering protections that first responders should take when the presence of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, is suspected. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was to announce the video, "Fentanyl: The Real Deal," at a Washington news conference.

A total of 31 inmates were evacuated from the unit where the Ohio prison exposure occurred, and a hazmat team from the Columbus fire department was summoned to clean up the affected area.

In Ohio, contraband drugs including opioids are an ongoing issue for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and county jails.

In May, a former milk deliveryman was accused of hiding marijuana, tobacco and cellphones inside milk cartons and smuggling them into a prison in southwest Ohio. He was sentenced to house arrest.

In September 2017, the Richland County Jail in Mansfield started operating a body scanner to detect drugs. Officials there monitored 26 opioid-related withdrawals in July 2017.

In February 2017, four inmates overdosed in two days at Pickaway Correctional Institution south of Columbus, requiring the use of CPR and doses of an anti-overdose drug as guards scrambled to revive the men.

Associated Press writer Marc Levy contributed to this report.

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