LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - Two Arkansas inmates were found dead on Wednesday at one of the state’s most secure prisons, bringing to five the number of prisoners suspected of dying from ingesting tainted illicit drugs this week, Department of Corrections officials said.
The deaths of the two Arkansas prisoners were announced on the same day as corrections officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania said they were looking into tainted illicit drugs making their way into prisons.
In Arkansas, all five inmates were housed in separate cells of the high-security “Supermax” unit of the prison at Varner, typically reserved for the state’s most serious offenders.
Since Sunday, three other inmates have died after being suspected of taking tainted illicit drugs. The five dead ranged in age from 26 to 55.
Arkansas prison officials suspect the deaths were caused by synthetic marijuana and offered no details as to how the drugs made their way into the facility.
“We would not be surprised if the medical examiner said these deaths were due to illicit drugs,” Jim DePriest, general counsel to the Arkansas Department of Correction, said in a telephone interview.
A dozen other inmates in the Supermax unit were treated last weekend for suspected drug overdoses, although none required hospitalization outside prison walls, DePriest said.
“Circumstances would suggest that those cases are related to the fatalities,” DePriest said. There is an internal probe and the Arkansas State Police is also investigating.
Arkansas prisons have struggled for months to halt the use of synthetic forms of marijuana, which have been linked to numerous deaths.
Across the state’s 16 prison facilities in 2017, there were about 1,000 overdose cases and more than a dozen deaths, prison officials said.
“It is of grave concern to us,” DePriest said.
In Ohio, 28 people, including 23 correction officers, were taken to the hospital for evaluation after they may have been exposed to an unidentified illicit drug substance, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said. Those evaluated also included four nurses and an inmate.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced on Wednesday the immediate lockdown of all state correctional institutions because of reports of multiple staff members sickened by unknown substances over the past few weeks.
Reporting by Steve Barnes; Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Peter Cooney