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K2 in prison: widely available, difficult to detect and potentially deadly

The use of 'synthetic marijuana' is soaring in the Arkansas Department of Correction.

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DRUGS IN PRISON: Staff smuggles in K2, according to multiple sources. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DRUGS IN PRISON: Staff smuggles in K2, according to multiple sources.

K2, otherwise known as synthetic marijuana or spice, is believed to be linked to multiple deaths in Arkansas prisons, according to former prison employees, inmates and internal communication obtained by the Arkansas Times.

The Arkansas Department of Correction acknowledges that inmates are using K2, and that the rate of use is rising rapidly. The ADC recorded six incidents of K2 use in 2013. In the first seven months of 2017, the ADC has recorded 707 incidents.

The ADC will not, however, confirm that K2 — which is actually not one drug but many and which Times sources said is being smuggled into prisons by employees — is killing its inmates. A prison spokesman said that ADC policy restricts the information the department can publicly reveal only to whether a death was by natural causes.

But it is known that at least one inmate died in a cell this year after smoking K2.

On the night of Feb. 17, a guard in the East Arkansas Regional Unit of the Department of Correction in Brickeys (Lee County) found inmate Julian Shavers unconscious in his cell and covered in vomit. "There was no pulse, but he was still warm," said the guard, who is no longer employed by the prison system and who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Shavers, 38, was rushed to the prison infirmary, but health care staff could not revive him. The incident was documented in a Lee County Coroner's report, which notes that "ingestion of K2 synthetic pot" was a "significant condition contributing" to Shavers' death. "We know for a fact it was [related to] K2," the guard told the Times. "We found the blunt next to him."

A catchall name for a drug containing dozens of man-made chemicals that are often sprayed on herbal materials and smoked, K2 has long been afforded a fairly benign reputation because of its association with marijuana. But in 2010, the Arkansas Department of Health placed an emergency ban on its sale, which had up to that date been legal. In 2011 the state began to classify K2 as a Schedule VI controlled substance, along with marijuana. The chemical compounds in K2 activate the same cell receptors as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana. But experts say that synthetic marijuana is a misleading description of K2, which they say can be exceedingly toxic and potentially deadly.

The near impossibility of detecting the drug in urinalysis makes K2 popular in prisons, inmates told the Times.

"K2, it's a big problem," said Cassandra Summers, a former guard at the East Arkansas Unit, who left in June after 10 years with the ADC because she said understaffing was making the job unsafe. "The ambulance has been there so many times, coming to take [prisoners] to the emergency room because they overdosed."

"They're just dying because of this stuff," she said.

The death of Julian Shavers

Julian Shavers' death is not given much attention in the institutional file held by the ADC: It is simply the last entry in a five-column grid stretching over almost 20 pages that document his life during 15 years in the criminal justice system, given no more attention than a move to another Arkansas prison ("Transferred to Another Facility") or a new job ("Work Assignment").

The entry recording Shavers' death notes, under "Details," that it is "Pending Investigation."

The ADC classifies Shavers' death as "not known to be due to natural causes," spokesman Solomon Graves said in an email to the Times.

But, while the file does not say much about Shavers' death, emails obtained by the Times suggest that top ADC officials, including Director Wendy Kelley, knew he died after smoking K2.

The Monday after Shavers died, Dana Gordon, a regional vice president of operations for the ADC's health care provider, Correct Care Solutions LLC, emailed her employer asking for input on how to educate inmates on the dangers of K2.

"We have had 3 recent deaths due to K2 spice. The last one being over the weekend," she wrote. (The only other prison death that weekend was that of a 71-year-old man who had been suffering from diabetes, hepatitis C and cirrhosis, according to Arkansas State Police records.)

A Correct Care Solutions patient safety officer responded to Gordon with fact sheets on synthetic drugs for health care workers, correction officers and patients. Gordon's email and the corporate response were copied to two top ADC officials: Director Kelley and Deputy Director Rory Griffin. In response, Kelley did not express surprise at the deaths. Nor did Kelley notify the State Police about the death or Gordon's email. Kelley informed Gordon only that she had forwarded a fact sheet to majors for shift briefings.

Gordon declined to comment on the email exchange. Jim Cheney, a spokesman for Correct Care, said Gordon was trying to give the prison "resources to better understand [K2's] potential impacts." The company said that would be its last word on the matter.

Slow to report

The State Police was not informed of Shavers' death until ten days after it occurred, on Feb. 28, despite prison policy that deaths suspected of being from unnatural causes are to be reported immediately to the State Police.

Because the State Police was not informed in "a timely manner," spokesman Bill Sadler said, the investigator was "unable to conduct a normal investigation."

"It becomes more difficult" after so much time has passed, Sadler said. "There are challenges when an agent goes in [even] just hours after an incident has happened; a body is gone, shift changes have occurred," Sadler said. "It certainly concerned the investigator."

Sadler said his agency never saw the Lee County Coroner's report and it did not interview the former guard who found Shavers. The State Police also never saw the email by Gordon until the Times supplied it to the agency.

The ADC has repeatedly failed to notify or fully disclose details of potential criminal events in prisons to the State Police as required by ADC policy. On July 22, a correctional officer fired three shots from a gun following a breakout of multiple prisoners at the Tucker Maximum Unit. The State Police only learned of the shots fired after the Times inquired. The Associated Press also reported that two assaults, including one that led to the death of inmate John Demoret, 25, on Aug. 10, were not reported immediately to the State Police. The State Police called a meeting with ADC staff in late August to discuss "how important it is to get these reports to State Police in a timely manner," Sadler said. The slow reporting of Shavers' death, he said, "was one of the reasons for the meeting." Since that meeting, the ADC has been reporting incidents more promptly, Sadler said.

The State Police report on Shavers' death is one page. It notes the agency "was not initially called to the prison regarding the death" and that the only action taken by the investigator was to obtain "a copy of the autopsy report completed by the Medical Examiner's Office." The ADC concluded that no "investigative actions" were necessary. The cause of Shavers' death was redacted.

Carolyn Flowers, Shavers' mother, is considering filing a wrongful death suit. Her attorney, Catherine Ryan, declined to comment.

HARD TO DETECT: Most drug tests don't reveal K2; that makes it especially popular with prisoners.
  • HARD TO DETECT: Most drug tests don't reveal K2; that makes it especially popular with prisoners.

Identifying K2

It's unlikely an autopsy could have confirmed that K2 was responsible for Shavers' death. The drug, made up of synthetic cannabinoids, is not manufactured in a controlled way and can be many combinations of chemicals — a makeup too complex for the State Crime Lab to identify. The lab sends samples to a commercial lab for testing.

But commercial testing for K2 is still problematic. "Even when we send it out for testing, their tests are not always seeing [K2]," said Cindy Moran, scientific operations director for the crime lab. Testing has not kept pace with the creation of chemicals that go into K2, so when a test comes back negative for K2, she said, "it doesn't mean the person didn't ingest it."

"Since there are so many [synthetic cannabinoids], and they're so varied, it's very difficult to detect unless your particular laboratory has developed a method," said Paul Prather, a researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who is leading a K2 study.

Tests are often costly, too: $100 per specific cannabinoid tested. That can add up quickly when you're searching for the few synthetic cannabinoids among hundreds that could have been ingested by a prisoner, said Jeff Moran, another UAMS researcher studying K2 (and the husband of Cindy Moran).

"What makes K2 kind of a hard nut to control is that once scientists and lawyers and the police have figured out a particular five compounds that are being used — fine, OK — [manufacturers say] we don't need those anymore and we will just ship in five new ones," Prather said. "So, it's an ever-evolving thing because people always realize: 'Well, OK, we'll get a new set of compounds that they won't be able to detect.' "

Even beyond the complexity of K2, research shows that most overdose deaths involve a mixing of drugs, and tests may not conclusively identify what drug — or the interaction of multiple drugs — causes a death. Deaths may be attributed to drugs that are easier to detect.

Other possible K2 deaths

Shavers was not the only inmate to die after ingesting K2, a former guard and inmates told the Times. Sources also said that prison handling of suspected K2 intoxication may have been a factor.

The complexity of K2 makes it hard to treat, said Keith McCain, who is also on the UAMS team studying K2. There is no standard recommended treatment plan.

"It is an ever-evolving type of symptomatology," McCain said. "There is, unfortunately, not a good way to say, 'Oh your patient is telling you they smoked K2 or spice — here's what you're going to expect.' It's more good symptomatic and supportive care and almost 'Just expect everything under the sun is a possibility.' "

Correct Care Solutions recommends that the prisons summon an emergency medical service to transport inmates high on synthetic drugs to hospitals. Care should not be administered at the prisons, the provider cautions.

But that advice is not being followed at the prisons, according to six inmates and four former guards. They said standard practice for dealing with prisoners who are high on K2 is to send them to the infirmary for a check of their vital signs and then move them into an isolation cell. ADC spokesman Graves, however, disputed that.

"They basically do a pre-lock up check, like blood pressure; that's it," one inmate said. "After they leave the nurse, they get locked down."

Graves said no inmate sent to the infirmary for showing signs of K2 intoxication is released back to security until after "the medical issues requiring special monitoring are resolved."

Three inmates who corresponded with the Times said the June 6 seizure death of Glen Hughes, 46, in a isolation cell at the Maximum Security Unit at Tucker after he smoked K2. He was locked down, inmates said, in part for his K2 use.

The state Medical Examiner's Office autopsy ruled that Hughes' death was natural, caused by "atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease complicating seizure disorder," with chronic kidney disease and hypertension as contributory causes. K2 is known to cause seizures. The State Police, informed of the death more than two months after it occurred, on Aug. 8, closed its investigation 10 days later based on the Medical Examiner's findings. (The Times requested all files related to Hughes' death from the State Police on July 27; the State Police had no files associated with the death at that time, spokesman Sadler said.)

Inmates claimed a third man, David Williams, 59, who was incarcerated at Tucker, was high on K2 when he died Aug. 14. Williams, however, suffered a liver condition and had sued the ADC for medical malpractice in its treatment for it. The suit ended with his death. The State Police did not investigate after the Medical Examiner report determined his death was from natural causes.

PRISON DIRECTOR KELLEY: She's attended a meeting about K2-related deaths. She says the department is working to educate inmates on the dangers of the drug.
  • PRISON DIRECTOR KELLEY: She's attended a meeting about K2-related deaths. She says the department is working to educate inmates on the dangers of the drug.

What the director knew

The former Brickeys guard said the two most common factors related to deaths during the guard's employment were "suicide and K2."

The guard said Director Kelley has been present during meetings to discuss "how many [K2-related] inmate deaths we've had this week or how many inmate deaths we've had this month."

Kelley declined to be interviewed in person, but in emails to the Times relayed through spokesman Graves she confirmed that she had attended meetings where K2 deaths were discussed. She would not elaborate on the meetings.

In a statement to the Times, Kelley said, "Efforts to educate the inmate population, visitors, and staff on the dangers of K2 continue. These efforts include signage throughout the interior and exterior of every facility along with educational videos, which are shown in the barracks. The Department also maintains various search and surveillance methods that are both active and passive. Finally, last month the Department revised its inmate correspondence policy in direct response to the use of mail to introduce drugs into facilities.

"I am aware of contraband, inside of the facilities. That fact led to the placement of warning signage in 2016," Kelley wrote.

On the rise

The 707 instances of K2 use in the prison recorded though July this year may represent only a fraction of the drug's use.

"K2 was the first drug [prisoners] could use and not get found dirty unless the officers found a sample of what you were smoking," one inmate told the Times. "You get a free pass unless you flip out."

Three inmates said prisoners purposefully cover for one another when they're high on K2 in an attempt to avoid punishment. A former guard said officers often do not write up every single drug offense.

"We would get maybe five to 10 a night — inmates high on K2. And we've had it where we had probably over 30 one night," the former sergeant at the East Arkansas Unit said.

One inmate described Tucker Max as "flooded" with K2; another said there was currently a K2 "explosion" there. Tom Navin, director of prison ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock who traveled to prisons from 2004 to 2016, said that before he left the use of K2 was "rampant."

There are many ways that K2 is smuggled into prison. Sometimes, inmates and former guards who spoke to the Times said, outsiders may drop it into the farm fields where inmates are working.

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But most said it is prison staff who are smuggling it in.

Navin said the guards "don't necessarily get caught, but their boss gives them a hard enough time that maybe they quit."

In the last year, according to dismissal files obtained by the Times, at least 12 employees have been dismissed for bringing in contraband to ADC facilities. One was terminated specifically for bringing in K2.

A former guard who was himself fired for dealing drugs — a charge he contends is false — said delivery of contraband by guards is rampant. "The inmates [are] not walking out of their cells," he said. Guards "can be like dirty cops."

Said one inmate who sells K2, "getting it in is the easy part."

Summers, the former East Arkansas Unit guard, said prisoners "get ahold of K2 like we get ahold of [potato] chips [outside of prison]."

Psychosis, seizures

Inmates who have smoked K2 said they've also felt the varied and detrimental effects described in scientific studies of the drug: psychosis, seizures, dependence.

"Sometimes it's like a weed high," one inmate who has smoked K2 wrote the Times in a letter, "but theres [sic] been times I thought every one [sic] was plotting against on me, another time I thought I was going to die throwing up everywhere not know[ing] who or where or what I was."

Another inmate reported "suicidal thoughts after taking it."

"The K2 has caused guys to go into seizure, pass out, see things not there, try to jump off the tiers, scream and beg for mercy, strip naked because they get hot, rage at others, you name it," an inmate who saw others high on K2 said.

"Best way I can describe it is like a person hollering. One guy was just hollering, he just wouldn't stop. Just hollering. Loud. Loud. Loud. Different people have different episodes," another wrote the Times.

Documents on how to treat K2 distributed by Correct Care Solutions note something called "spiceophrenia," defined as "a psychotic syndrome that persists for months."

With chronic understaffing across ADC facilities, former guard Summers said, K2 users "climbing up the walls" and "foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling into the back of their head" have become dangerous for correctional officers, too.

The prisons are "so short and understaffed; it's unsafe," she said. "It takes 19 or 20 people to run a post; [East Arkansas Regional Unit has] 9 or 10 or 11, and that's on a good day." Guards have to work 12-hour shifts and, Summers said, and with staffing problems, some have had to work back-to-back shifts.

ADC officials have said for months that it needs more officers across units.

Can prisons change?

Navin, the former spiritual adviser, said he was unsure that prisons could ever stop drug use.

"If I was faced with the conditions that they are — in that cell or in that pod everyday, with no goals to achieve and nothing to accomplish, I might be looking for drugs also," he said. "They get so desperate they'll take any drug — any drug. Anything that they get their hands or that's offered to them, they'll take it."

What prisoners can get is K2. It's cheap and easy to smuggle into the prison.

"They're looking for relief. They're not looking to be a drug addict, they're looking for relief," Navin said. "Just to medicate themselves long enough to forget about their present situation."

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