Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty Images)

This week, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ordered a lockdown of its entire 47,000-person-prison system after yet another spate of employees was rushed to the hospital, sickened by what the DOC is calling “unknown substances,” which many believe to be illicit opioid-related drugs.

The Washington Post reports that the prison in Albion, Pa., where five employees were taken to a hospital on Wednesday, was the site of only one of 17 cases that have exploded since early August. In total, 29 prison staff members have been hospitalized from the so-far unidentified substances and nine prisons have been affected, according to Sue McNaughton, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Communication Director. According to NPR, there is no public information on the number of prisoners who have become sick.

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“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said on Wednesday. “Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”

Ironically, this is happening during the #NationalPrisonStrike where many prisons are going on lockdown too, but because of acts of civil disobedience from prisoners including work stoppages, hunger strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, and other measures to disrupt daily life in response to what those behind bars deem inhumane treatment and slave-like exploitation.

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In the case of Pennsylvania, all state prisons were locked down indefinitely this week; no prisoners will be able to leave their cells, including for meals or programs; there will be no visits, and all mailrooms are closed for all mail except legal.

According to McNaughton, “Mail is one of the main ways people get drugs into the institutions. Individuals will take a piece of paper, soak it in a drug, let it dry, write on it, then send it. Our mailroom staff opens up mail and searches for contraband, exposing them to it.

“Just like the community is suffering, the prisons are suffering from the opioid epidemic,” McNaughton adds. “We’re not alone in this battle.”

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The Post reports that affected employees have reported feeling sick after activities such as searching a cell or escorting an inmate through the prison, with symptoms like dizziness, lethargy, scratchy throats, and headaches.

Measures being considered in Pennsylvania include a new mail processing system, and for now, gloves are mandatory for all employees.

The Post reports that the Pennsylvania incidents are similar to a case in an Ohio prison where nearly 30 prison employees were exhibiting signs of a drug overdose.

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It turned out that the cause was fentanyl, a synthetic opioid about 50 times more powerful than heroin and quite deadly.