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Five Years After Limiting Personal Visits and Banning Mail, Drug Use Worse in Pennsylvania Prisons

As reported by the Harrisburg Patriot News on April 21, 2023, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) implemented a solution to the drug problem in state prisons in September 2018 that has proved cruel and ultimately ineffective. That year, a rash of illnesses befell prison staff, which DOC blamed on incoming prisoner mail soaked in K2 and fentanyl.

So DOC prohibited prisoners from receiving physical mail and contracted a mail scanning system. Now any mail sent to a prisoner in Pennsylvania is forwarded to a center in Florida where it is scanned and destroyed, sending the prisoner a facsimile – either by re-printing it or making the document available on an electronic tablet.

At the time of the changeover, Pennsylvania was desperate to end the rash of drug exposure incidents alarming prison staff. Although Keystone State cops never concluded that the illnesses were caused by drugs – nor was there any evidence they were smuggled through the mail – officials insisted that mail was the most likely source of entry.

However, medical experts said it was “effectively impossible to become ill from such incidental contact with K2, fentanyl or similar substances.” Ryan Marino, a toxicology expert, called it “not possible and not something that happens when prison staff have accidental contact with mail.” He added that symptoms reported by staffers were “usually the exact opposite of what opioids or fentanyl would do.” 

Unsurprisingly, drug use in DOC lockups is no better than it was five years ago – in fact, it is now worse. After a slight decline in the immediate aftermath of the policy change, the number of positive drug tests rebounded quickly and is now higher than it was before.

One interesting metric is the number of prisoners in Pennsylvania who tested positive on random drug tests. In August 2018, when the crackdown was imposed, it was 1.0%. Fast forward to December 2022, and the number nearly tripled to 2.7%.

Five years after changing mail handling, Acting DOC Secretary Laurel Harry said at a budget hearing, “We also know that [traffickers] will look for other avenues for drugs to enter our system, and that’s where [we] have to focus our efforts. But we don’t have to focus our efforts on the mail.” But as the Harrisburg Patriot pointed out, “if the mail scanning system has allowed the DOC to focus on drug interdiction elsewhere, as Harry stated, the department’s data hasn’t shown it.”

John Eckenrode, of the union representing Pennsylvania guards, believes that the incidence of staff smuggling is small. Instead he blames legal mail – which is exempt from scanning – as well as donated books, visitors, and drone drops. 

Bret Grote, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center, calls the DOC change in prisoner mail handling a cynical “shock-and-awe campaign” without any empirical basis. He blames the policy change for spawning other mail-scanning schemes across the country. 

Sources: NPR, PennLive, Harrisburg Patriot