December 12, 2022

Rushville exposure incident underscores need for mail safety

A security therapy aide (STA) at the state of Illinois’ Rushville Treatment and Detention Center nearly died in October after coming into contact with an unknown substance sent to the facility by mail. She was ultimately saved after first responders gave her three doses of Narcan.

Rushville houses individuals convicted of certain sexual offenses who remain in state custody after they have served their prison sentences. The individuals at Rushville are not considered prisoners and are entitled to more freedoms than inmates in a state correctional facility are. This means that security staff are not allowed to open and screen mail sent to Rushville’s population.

In this case, an individual in custody opened a letter to find he was sent photographs, which are forbidden. When he came to show the STA what was inside, she dumped the photos out and a powdery substance fell out, which was then likely breathed in by the STA, who then passed out.

AFSCME Local 3416 President Jason Chenoweth said the situation could have been lethal if the STA didn’t have someone by her side.

“Most of the time we’re so short staffed, we only have one person to pass out the mail,” Chenoweth said. “Luckily there was another employee with her who could call for help. If he wasn’t there, she could have died.”

While paramedics were en route, the STA went into cardiac arrest. A nurse gave her a dose of Narcan, a medication that treats opioid overdoses. She received Narcan twice more on the way to the hospital.

Chenoweth said the STA’s physical condition has improved, but she has experienced lasting trauma from the incident.

The intended target of the attack is unknown. Illinois State Police are conducting an investigation into the matter, including performing tests to determine what the powder was.

The incident at Rushville underscores the necessity to have Narcan at facilities where people in custody are being sent mail.

Just a few miles down the road from Rushville at Western Correctional Center, correctional officers are confronting the same problem. According to AFSCME Local 3567 President Keith Powell, Western started experiencing issues with drugs and other unknown substances sent through the mail, with at least five employees sent to the hospital. In all five instances, they were treated with Narcan.

Most recently, a correctional officer at Western was opening mail when he started to feel dizzy and his blood pressure skyrocketed. He was given two doses of Narcan on the way to the hospital.

“He’s physically fit. He’s a good officer, and he nearly succumbed to this,” Powell said. “His wife was expecting. He has four kids. It was really scary. It’s happened multiple times and we’ve pushed for Narcan in all the cell houses and in any areas that review mail.”

Besides having Narcan readily available, Powell says there are a number of measures that state facilities could implement to reduce the risks of exposure to workers. One is installing body scanners to help prevent contraband from being smuggled into facilities.

Another is employing a system, such as one that Iowa’s corrections department recently introduced, that scans and produces digital copies of mail for inmates, so neither inmates nor correctional officers ever actually physically touch the contents of the mail.

“I don’t know why the state of Illinois is on the cutting edge of everything else except when it comes to keeping us safe,” Powell said.

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