ACLU seeks info on inmate health as guards have fallen ill

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said Tuesday that the state prison system should reinstate inmate mail and visitation privileges that have been suspended because about 50 guards and other employees have fallen sick in recent weeks.

Pennsylvania ACLU Executive Director Reggie Shuford called the lockdown in place over the past week "gravely serious," arguing that state officials should provide more information to the public.

"If staff have been ill, it's reasonable to conclude that prisoners have been sick, too, although the lack of information makes that impossible to confirm," Shuford said. "Either way, the department has left prisoners' families and the public in the dark on the health of the people who are incarcerated."

Officials suspect smuggled synthetic marijuana, a clear, odorless chemical, is to blame. The drug, also called K2, is thought to be coming into the jails by being soaked in the paper of letters or books.

A prison system spokeswoman said officials are checking out "a small number" of reports of sickened inmates.

MORE: Pennsylvania prisons on lockdown as mystery illnesses probed

Inmates have been allowed access to showers and phones and limited time outside their cells since Saturday. Officials hope to lift the lockdown early next week.

Shuford said it was not acceptable for the Corrections Department to lock down facilities and halt inmate mail, phone and visitation privileges "every time a staff person becomes ill."

"The health of the DOC staff is certainly critical, as is the health and well-being of prisoners," he said. "A statewide lockdown is a heavy-handed response that is detrimental to the long-term health of people who are incarcerated."

Along with the state prison staff, nine correctional officers and two medical workers were sickened by some sort of odor or substance Sunday night at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. They were all released after being evaluated at a hospital. The jail was put on lockdown.