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Four Deaths in Seven Weeks at Pennsylvania Prison

During the spring 2023, a troubling number of mysterious deaths took place in the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Rockview, Pennsylvania. Richard Woods, 46, was found unresponsive in his cell on April 20, 2023. He was rushed to Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, where he was declared dead hours later. A few weeks before that, on April 9, 2023, Jamie Houseknecht, 43, was also found unresponsive in his cell. He was later declared dead at the same hospital. Robert D. Williams, 40, and Andrew Yuhas, 61, were also found unresponsive in their cells and later declared dead on March 3 and 6, 2023, respectively.

Woods, who was serving a life sentence for a Philadelphia murder, had been at SCI-Rockview since 2003. Houseknecht was serving 12-24 years for a child rape in Berks County; he had been at the prison since 2010. Williams was serving a 2-to-10-year sentence for retaliating against a witness or victim. He had been in custody of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) since 2010, and an inmate at SCI-Rockview since October 2021. Yuhas, who was serving 16-to-32 years for a rape in Luzerne County, arrived at the prison in March 2016.

The Centre County Coroner’s Office had yet to determine the cause of death for any of the four prisoners at the end of April 2023. But the threats prisoners face include lethal contraband drugs. A spate of mysterious prison deaths may be linked to an illegal substance or drug that entered the prison population. In its special series “Criminal Justice Collaborative,” NPR reported the staggering fact that the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication grew more than 600% from 2001 to 2018 in state prisons.

University of Chicago Professor Harold Pollack blames the spike in overdose deaths to widespread drug use in prison, noting  that it is especially dangerous behind bars because “substances that come into the jail or prison don’t exactly go through the FDA lab to know what’s in there.”

The NPR report warns that “people in prison often use drugs when they’re alone and may be reluctant to call for help if there’s a problem. Even if they do seek help, medical care is often scarce and subpar. And access to drugs is erratic, which leads to rapid changes in tolerance, putting users at higher risk for an overdose.”

Wanda Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative claims that the increased number of prison deaths due to overdoses reflects U.S. persistence in incarcerating individuals with addiction problems and not providing them adequate treatment.  

Sources: Centre Daily Times, NPR News, WBEZ