Trending Topics

How correctional officers can protect against opioid exposure during a cell search

As the opioid crisis continues to impact communities nationwide, efforts to smuggle narcotics like fentanyl into correctional facilities show no signs of abating


Posters comparing lethal amounts of heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil, are on display during a news conference about the dangers of fentanyl, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington Va., Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

By James Careless, C1 Contributor

Cell searches are a fact of life for correctional officers. They are a necessity to catch inmates trying to do everything from concealing hidden weapons and cellphones to smuggled-in drugs and even home-brewed ”prison wine,” aka ”pruno.”

Unfortunately, the arrival of fentanyl in jails and prisons nationwide has added a new threat to cell searches for corrections officers. This is because this opioid is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, and often used in a powdered form that is all too easy for searchers to inhale.

Recent suspected exposures of corrections officers to fentanyl powder have occurred in Ohio and Pennsylvania underlining the threat contraband opioids pose to COs. Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate this threat; based on the following suggestions compiled under the guidance of Corrections1 columnist Anthony Gangi (host of the Tier Talk podcast).

Assume the threat is a given

With fentanyl usage climbing in U.S. jails and prisons, a corrections officer should not be asking “if” they will ever encounter this substance during a cell search, but rather “when.”

This being the case, every single cell search should be conducted assuming fentanyl could be inside with correctional officers equipped with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Whether routine or targeted, cell searches are needed daily to control the spread of contraband and to overall protect the integrity of the facility,” said Gangi. This is one task that just can’t be put off until tomorrow.

The right PPE includes...

... basically everything needed to prevent a corrections officer from making contact with fentanyl during a cell search.

This means wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts; both made of fabric dense enough to prevent fentanyl powder from getting through the fabric and onto the wearer’s skin.

Better yet, lightweight HAZMAT suits are a good choice; as long as they are either disposed of safely after one use, or cleaned using rigorous decontamination procedures before re-use.

Thin, surgical-quality gloves that cover the cuffs are also required, as is protective eyewear that covers the upper part of the face adequately. Workman-style facemasks won’t do: To be safe from airborne fentanyl powder, the officer should wear a respirator rated to the N95 standard.

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

“Without protective gear, officers may become more hesitant when conducting searches,” says Gangi. “Their safety and well-being must be ensured in order for them to be effective in conducting a cell search, and making sure they are placing all their efforts into finding any form of contraband that poses a threat to the facility.”

“If you come across anything unknown, do not touch it and call your immediate supervisor,” he adds.

Be ready to treat fentanyl exposure

In case an accidental exposure occurs, be sure to have doses of naloxone available. Naloxone will temporarily reverse fentanyl overdose symptoms until emergency medical assistance arrives.

(Be sure to document any exposure incidents in complete detail, for later review and possible workplace compensation.)

DO NOT attempt to wash off fentanyl using alcohol-based hand cleaners, because they can increase the absorption of fentanyl into the skin. Soap and water will do – but don’t splash the water around, and keep other staff well back from the exposed person being washed unless they are wearing PPEs. Dispose of any contaminated clothing and items safely.

Prepare fentanyl management plans, PPE and naloxone kits and train staff now before the inevitable occurs.

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