New information on the mysterious illnesses which led to a lock down of all 25 Pennsylvania’s state prisons came to light on Thursday.

A spokesperson with the Department of Corrections said that “synthetic cannabinoids” are believed to be the at least one of the culprits behind dozens of state prison employees falling ill in recent weeks. The colorless and odorless liquid can be put on a piece of paper and easily mailed, or delivered clandestinely by a visitor.

The substance appears to be easily transmittable and causes a reaction almost instantly.

In one recent case – though it has not been officially confirmed that synthetic cannabinoids were responsible – an officer who was escorting an intoxicated inmate developed bumps across his forehead and elevated blood pressure shortly afterwards, authorities said.

In another case, a guard noticed a small white, orange, and blue paper fall from an inmate who had been “acting suspicious.” The guard who picked up the paper developed a headache and disorientation, and had to be hospitalized, according to the DOC.

The illnesses are not contained to Pennsylvania, and have also led to lockdowns in state prison facilities in both Maryland and Ohio. There have been no illnesses in Maryland, but Ohio has reported that 28 corrections officers, nurses, and an inmate were hospitalized. That case, however, was originally believed to be a potential fentanyl exposure; an opioid very different from a synthetic cannabinoid.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as “K2” or “spice,” is a mass-produced, artificial drug that has the same active component as natural marijuana, THC, but is radically different. Officials stressed the importance of not thinking of synthetic cannabinoids as marijuana.

“This stuff is dangerous and using this flawed nomenclature gives the perception it is safe and has similar effects as marijuana, which is clearly not the case,” J.J. Abbott, the press secretary for Gov. Wolf, wrote on Twitter.

Recently, the drug has caused serious epidemics, including an outbreak of 70 overdoses earlier this month in New Haven, Connecticut near Yale University.

Lab testing is still underway to confirm whether or not synthetic cannabinoids are responsible for the rest of the illnesses.

It’s not yet clear how long the lock down – which forbids any outside visitors, contains inmates to their cells at all times, and requires strict protocol to be followed by staff – will be in place. Gov. Wolf issued a statement noting that the closures were a necessary step.

“Pennsylvania’s corrections officers put themselves in harm’s way to make our commonwealth safer, and it is up to us to provide them protection from harm,” he said. “Today’s action to lock down all of the state’s correctional facilities is a necessary step to ensure the safety of our officers and provide the department the opportunity to assess and control the situation.”

>>See original story: All PA State Prisons Locked Down Due To Mysterious Illnesses: DOC

Staff are also undergoing additional training to help handle the crisis. The DOC closed their field parole offices to the public Thursday and Friday for further safety instruction.

Illegal drugs have always been an issue faced by prisons, however, the situation seems to have turned more dire in Pennsylvania in recent weeks. In addition to the illnesses, there have been recent several seizures of drugs from visitors trying to hand-deliver substances into the prison, the DOC reports.

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The situation is not contained to Pennsylvania. DOC Secretary John Wetzel said that the Ross Correctional Institution in Ohio has also had 20 staff members and inmates who were recently taken ill with similar symptoms.

“I have confidence that the Department of Corrections, working with state agency partners and law enforcement, will determine the cause or causes of the recent sickening of staff and put in place the necessary protections and procedures to ensure staff safety,” Wolf added.


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