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Prison Lockdown in Pennsylvania Leads to New Crackdowns, Censorship

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On August 29, 2018, Pennsylvania instituted a 12-day prison lockdown. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, backed by Governor Tom Wolf, claimed the lockdown was an emergency measure in response to widespread infection of prison staff from physical contact with synthetic drugs, in particular K2, a synthetic cannabinoid which can be dried onto paper. The lockdown put into effect conditions similar to solitary confinement, with inmates locked inside their cells up to 24 hours a day with no access to the world outside. However, some claim that the lockdown was a preemptive action to prevent the 2018 National Prison Strike from spreading to Pennsylvania prisons.

According to Major Tillery, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Frackville, the lockdown appears to have been a preemptive action to prevent the 2018 National Prison Strike from spreading to Pennsylvania prisons. Lending credence to this theory, several toxicologists have begun to question the official story. According to Truthout, which has compiled coverage of the lockdown and its aftermath, Jeanmarie Perrone, the director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania, claimed that absorption of chemicals like K2 through contact with the skin is unlikely, and that “transient exposure” probably wouldn’t be enough to trigger symptoms. Lewis Nelson, the chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers Medical School, claimed the symptoms reported by the staff were inconsistent with synthetic cannabis exposure. In the wake of the lockdown, the DOC set up permanent restrictions on visitation and personal mail, instituted a new mail procedure that threatened mail confidentiality, and restricted prisoners’ ability to purchase or receive newspapers, magazines and books from outside the prison. However, in 2019, many of these new measures are being rolled back because of a legal settlement involving civil rights groups and the state’s Department of Corrections,

While the Philadelphia Inquirer, the local CBS affiliate, and AP News have provided general coverage of the lockdown, the justification for it and ensuing procedural have not been addressed in that. A number of independent news outlets have picked up this story, however. Beyond Truthout, WITF (a Pennsylvania public radio organization) and the San Francisco Bay View have covered the aftermath of the lockdown or attempted to address some of the still unanswered questions about the decision to enact it in the first place.

Sources:

Major Tillery, “Behind 12-Day Statewide Pennsylvania Prison Lockdown: Control, Power, Money,” San Francisco Bay View​, October, 29, 2018, sfbayview.com/2018/10/behind-12-day-statewide-pennsylvania-prison-lockdown-control-powermoney/.

Valerie Kiebala, “Pennsylvania Prison Lockdown: Public Health Crisis or Powerplay?” Truthout, February 21, 2019, https://truthout.org/articles/pennsylvania-prison-lockdown-public-health-crisis-or-powerplay/.

Katie Meyer, “PA tighten prison security. Some people aren’t sure it’s warranted,” WITF, September 5, 2018, http://www.witf.org/state-house-sound-bites/2018/09/pa-tightens-prison-security-some-people-arent-sure-its-warranted.php.

Student Researcher: Troy Patton (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)

Daniel Christof

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