Wolf Administration takes steps to improve safety, security in state prisons

Following a Safety Summit between AFSCME Council 13 and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Governor Tom Wolf’s administration has taken steps to improve safety and security at Pennsylvania’s prisons. These measures come amidst a statewide prison lockdown due to employees being sickened by exposure to smuggled drugs. Council 13 will continue to work closely with the DOC to address these issues, and assure the state’s prison system is as safe as possible for the dedicated workers who make it happen. It is also Council 13’s goal to assure members’ jobs are not negatively affected by these changes.

The DOC released the following statement outlining the safety measures:

“The Department of Corrections is taking aggressive measures to address new threats to staff and inmate safety within the state prison system.

“The safety and security of staff and inmates is paramount to the Department of Corrections,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. “Whether the threat is drugs or staff assaults, the agency is working vigorously to combat these threats on many fronts.”

The DOC is redoubling its efforts to address the evolving threats, particularly those involving illicit, harmful substances and the violence that can be connected to their illegal trade.

The DOC has developed a multi-point plan to respond to these new threats to safety and security within the facilities:

  • Implementing new training in the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the majority of institutional staff – including all corrections officers, maintenance, and food service staff who handle inmate clothing or property – to ensure the use of protective gear when conducting searches and processing inmate mail or other items.
  • Training in-house Fire Emergency Response Teams (FERT) in hazardous material response.
  • Increasing the inventory of protective gear, including purchasing special gloves and respirators to ensure that staff have greater protection when handling potentially hazardous material.
  • Purchasing safety disposal equipment for unknown substances, including an appropriate container and bags that can be sealed for use in the mailrooms to safely secure and dispose of questionable items.
  • Expanding the use of body scanners at state prisons and community corrections centers. The DOC has installed body scanners at SCI Coal Township and soon SCI Huntingdon on a pilot basis. The Community Corrections Center at Wernersville purchased a body scanner after experiencing promising results. The agency plans to install body scanners at all institutions to be used following inmate visitation to ensure contraband does not enter the institutions.
  • Reviewing procedures for inmate mail processing to identify better means to safely and efficiently detect and divert contraband before it is delivered to the inmate population.  Attempts to introduce narcotics through the mail have increased significantly in recent years.  Illicit substances are often secreted under stamps, in pictures or saturated into the paper itself, making detection of drugs a time-consuming and difficult undertaking.
  • Purchasing K9 Narcan auto injectors to be available for use on drug-sniffing K9s.
  • Expanding the K9 unit by three teams dedicated to searching community corrections facilities.

The Department of Corrections is not immune to the drug epidemic that has affected record numbers of individuals on the outside, one that has been made more complex and more dangerous to those simply exposed to the drugs by the introduction of various synthetic compounds.

Since the beginning of August, 18 staff members at three institutions in western Pennsylvania were sickened by exposure to an unknown substance. The Pennsylvania State Police is currently conducting testing on samples of the substances to determine their identity.

As new toxic substances are introduced that are more difficult to identify, the DOC is working to eliminate the avenues for contraband to enter the system. The DOC believes there is a link between increased drug trade in prisons and the uptick in violence, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.

The staff assault rate has inched up by 4 percent in the first half of 2018, but the overall downward trend in the staff assault rate continues, remaining lower today than it was 25 years ago.

DOC is confident that introducing new training and safety measures to limit the introduction of contraband will reduce potential exposure and further drive down the number of assaults.

“Prison staff, especially corrections officers, risk their lives on a daily basis,” said Tabb Bickell, the DOC’s executive deputy secretary for institution security. “We are moving quickly and deliberately to make sure they have all the available tools and training to ensure their safety.”

Earlier this year, following the fatal assault on Sgt. Mark Baserman, the DOC instituted new staff training protocols in violence prevention and response, instituted weekly intelligence briefings, added dedicated intelligence lieutenants at each facility, and contracted with an information technology firm to enhance risk assessment especially in predicting violence.

The Department of Corrections continues to explore avenues to increase the safety and security of its staff, inmate population, and the public.”

In addition, the DOC released the following information on Wednesday, September 5:

Over the past week, the DOC has begun implementing or expanding the following to combat the introduction of drugs into the facilities:

  1. Immediate elimination of mail processing at facilities

Effective immediately, all inmate mail will be sent to a central processing facility where it will be opened, scanned and emailed back to the facilities.  Initially, this process will take a few days however, after the initial 90 day transition period, mail will be delivered the day after it has been received. Mail delivery will be expanded to 6 days per week.

Each facility will print the mail and deliver it to the inmates effectively eliminating any possibility of drug introduction through the mail system. Effective immediately, all mail that was collected during the lockdown will be returned to sender – no exceptions.

Effective immediately, all inmate mail should now be shipped to the following address utilizing existing DOC mail rules:

Smart Communications/PADOC

Inmate Name/Inmate Number


PO Box 33028

St Petersburg FL 33733

Envelopes must include a return address. Photos will be limited to 25 per mailing. Any mailing received with more than 25 photos will be returned to sender.

  1. Legal Mail

Legal mail will be copied in a centralized, contained location in front of the inmate by staff wearing protective equipment. A dedicated copier will be used strictly for legal mail and will follow strict cleaning protocol to ensure that any contamination is contained to a specific area of the institution. The process will be recorded and preserved for a period of 45 days.

  1. Visit Room Modifications (90 days)

Effective immediately, the DOC is doubling all staffing in visit rooms. In addition, the DOC is implementing a 90-day moratorium on photos and vending. Drugs are often introduced via photos in the visiting room and drugs are passed between visitor and inmate via food/drink. A moratorium on both photos and food will allow us to stabilize the visiting room and prevent the introduction of contraband through this method. The DOC will reevaluate the visiting room procedures during this 90-day period to determine what the next steps may be.

In addition to the visit room modifications, an enhanced policy on drug introduction by visitors and/or inmates is in process. This policy will provide for stricter punishment for the introduction of drugs through the visiting room as well as for inmates who may use or have possession of drugs within the institution.

There will be a lifetime ban for any visitor caught introducing contraband into visit rooms.

Visit suspensions will be put in place for inmates confirmed in possession of or testing positive for drugs:

            1st offense – 6 month suspension

            2nd offense – 12 month suspension

            3rd offense – indefinite suspension of visits

  1. Books & Publications

Effective immediately, the DOC will begin to transition to ebooks coupled with bolstered DOC library system featuring centralized purchasing and ordering process. No books or publications will be shipped directly to an inmate.

Inmates will have access to a “publication request icon” on existing kiosks and all requests will be forwarded to central office for processing once the publication/book has been paid for by a cash slip. Central office will purchase in bulk from various sellers to prohibit the introduction of contraband.

Friends and family may make requests to purchase books for inmates and may pay for those items via an account specifically for this purpose. Once payment has been received, the DOC will order the publication and ship it to the institution where the inmate resides.

  1. Expansion of drone detection software and capabilities

The DOC currently has drone detection capabilities at several of our facilities. This software allows for not only the detection but also the tracking of drone activity within the limits of our facilities so that we can identify and combat the introduction of contraband via drones.

  1. Enhanced commitment reception protocol

The return of Parole Violators and introduction of new commits is problematic and another way that contraband is introduced into the facilities. A team has been put together to look at this process and enhancements will be forthcoming.

  1. Expanded use of body scanners

The DOC is expanding its use of body scanners which have the ability to detect contraband on or within a person. These units have been successfully implemented in both SCI Coal Township and Wernersville Community Corrections Center. It is anticipated that all institutions will receive their scanners within 90 days.

  1. Improved Ion Scanners.

The DOC is implementing an enhanced ion scanning technique through the use of Rapiscan. This system is an upgraded version of the existing technology that are within our institutions today. The DOC is purchasing at least two systems per facility. The systems will be placed at ingress points for both staff and visitors as well as within outside service units. This system has already been ordered and all facilities will have them in place over the course of the next 90 days.

  1. Drug hotline – 717.728.4743

The DOC has implemented a hotline that anyone (including inmates) can call to report information related to the introduction of drugs or possession of drugs in a SCI by inmates, visitors, or staff members. Callers may remain anonymous but if you wish to speak with an investigator, you must leave your name and inmate number. Messages should provide as much detail as possible so an appropriate and thorough investigation can occur.”