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Fentanyl FAQs for correctional officers

At facilities across the country, correctional officers have been treated for symptoms of fentanyl exposure; here’s what you need to know to stay safe


A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Va., Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

By James Careless, C1 Contributor

With its low street price, extreme potency and ease of smuggling, the opioid fentanyl can be a correctional officer’s worst nightmare. The reason: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.”

In its popular powder form, fentanyl is easily inhaled; it is also used in pill form and slow-release skin patches.

Fentanyl exposure could trigger overdoses in correctional officers who happen upon this substance during routine searches. Overdose symptoms include severe sleepiness, slow heartbeat, trouble breathing (slow and shallow), cold and clammy skin, and trouble walking or talking.

The following FAQ, compiled with the guidance of Corrections1 columnist Anthony Gangi (host of the Tier Talk podcast), can help correctional officers get a handle on this growing threat to their workplace safety and physical health.

How prevalent is fentanyl in U.S. correctional facilities?

Hard numbers don’t exist, but the news is full of stories detailing correctional staff possibly being exposed to fentanyl. These include 27 correctional staff members reportedly exposed to fentanyl in Ohio, and 29 staffers becoming sick in 13 separate incidents in the Pennsylvania prison system in 2018.

“As you can see from tracking accidental correctional officer overdoses in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, it is easy to people to smuggle opioids like fentanyl and K2 in prisons,” said Anthony Gangi. “Moreover, this is happening more and more often. Correctional officers are facing a nationwide epidemic of smuggled opioids that’s only getting worse.”

What kinds of PPE can protect correctional officers from fentanyl exposure?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) can help protect correctional officers during any searches in which they might encounter a powdered substance.

The right PPE includes long-sleeve shirts and long pants made of tightly-woven materials, to prevent fentanyl intrusions through the fabric to the skin. Single-use surgical-quality gloves that overlap the cuffs are a must, as are proper eye protection (safety glasses) and a fitted N95 (or better) standard respirator.

This PPE should be used in all searches where correctional officers could encounter fentanyl; both for inmates and visitors.

Should I pre-plan my search?

Yes. Pre-planning should start by training correctional officers in the proper use of PPEs, and then with the identification and safe disposal of fentanyl and other opioids.

Standard protocols should be developed to define the stages in specific search scenarios; such as searches of cells, inmates, and visitors. Search simulations using role players and simulated substances should then be held on an ongoing basis, with the full use of PPEs during these sessions.

Searches that reveal fentanyl should be de-briefed afterwards, for “lessons learned” and make any changes to search procedures.

How does naloxone fit in?

Naloxone (also known as Narcan) is a widely-available drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdoses; including fentanyl.

It is vital for correctional officers to have immediate access to naloxone at all times. This includes officers having their own naloxone doses, and their facilities having posted supplies of naloxone available in various locations.

Should I document all drug exposures?

Yes. Correctional officers who are exposed to fentanyl (or any other drug) at work should seek medical help immediately and ensure that all such incidents are fully documented if they occur.

Without this documentation, these officers may run into issues receiving proper medical support and financial compensation from their employers. They also need to be able to prove that any impairment they displayed on the job was due to fentanyl exposure, and not any professional lapses on their parts.

About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering law enforcement topics.