Two prisoners at Arkansas' Varner Unit were found unresponsive in their cells Wednesday morning and later died, a prison official confirmed, raising to five the total number of deaths at the prison this week.
The Arkansas State Police is investigating the recent string of deaths. Jim DePriest, chief attorney for the Department of Correction, said it would "not surprise" officials if the deaths are determined to be drug-related.
In addition to the deaths, about a dozen other prisoners at the Varner Unit have been treated for suspected drug-related illnesses in recent days, DePriest said.
DePriest identified the prisoners who died Wednesday morning as Donovan Cobbs, 26, who was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery; and Joe Harris, 55, who was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and a string of other crimes.
Both men were in Varner's Supermax section, the state's highest-security lockup, according to online prison records. Cobbs was found unresponsive about 5:50 a.m. Wednesday, DePriest said. Harris was found about 20 minutes later.
On Sunday and Monday, three other men died at the Varner lockup: Edward Morris, 34; Stephen Kantzer, 38; and Marlon Miles, 41. Miles and Morris were also in the Varner Supermax section; Kantzer was in the general prison population.
Wednesday's deaths in the Varner Unit prompted a unit-wide "shakedown," DePriest said, and extra staff members helped search for drugs and contraband.
Officials with the Department of Correction, including state prisons director Wendy Kelley, have publicly stated that the department struggles to keep out illicit drugs, especially a form of synthetic marijuana known as "K2."
The Department of Correction logged 468 incidents related to K2 from Jan. 1 through the end of July, according to numbers provided by DePriest. That's on pace for a 30 percent decline from all of 2017, when the department logged 1,136 total reports of the drug.
Internal records show that investigators found what they suspected were rolled pieces of K2 near the body of Morris, one of the inmates who died Sunday. Also, another inmate who was treated admitted using the drug.
To stem the flow of K2 into prisons, the Department of Correction adopted new policies last year banning newspaper clippings and original pieces of mail from being delivered to inmates, after officers discovered paper laced with the drug. Now prisoners receive personal pieces of mail after it has been photocopied by the staff.
In addition, DePriest said the department has added body scanners to screen for the drug at entrances to prisons and has stepped up "educational" efforts to warn prisoners about the dangers of K2.
Paul Prather, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, has studied synthetic cannabinoids for years. He described K2, also known as Spice, as among several hundred compounds derived from the naturally occurring ones in cannabis. But unlike authorized pharmaceuticals, Prather said, almost none of the compounds marketed as synthetic marijuana have been tested on animals or humans.
Adding to the K2 danger, Prather said, are "clandestine chemists," who often operate in foreign countries and spray several different compounds onto plant material to make K2.
"Marijuana, as a plant, is relatively safe," Prather said, but with synthetic versions, "you get this dizzying array of clinical toxicity that you see reported."
Prather said side effects can include kidney damage, seizures and cardiac arrest. Earlier this year, at least two people died in Chicago from internal bleeding caused by synthetic marijuana laced with rat poison, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The many, quickly altered variations of the drug make it difficult to detect, and thus it is popular in prisons, Kelley told lawmakers earlier this summer.
The state Crime Laboratory is conducting autopsies and toxicology testing on the inmates who died at Varner this week, but the lab's assistant director, Cindy Moran, said Wednesday that the tests have yet to yield any results.
The lab is also testing materials found near the victims' bodies, state police have said.
The Arkansas prison deaths come as officials in Mississippi investigate the deaths of 13 inmates at several prisons in that state this month.
According to news reports there, the Mississippi Department of Correction has yet to determine the causes of the deaths, which it has said are "not out of line" with the number of deaths in other recent months.
The Clarion Ledger in Jackson reported Wednesday that the FBI has joined the investigation into the deaths.
Bill Sadler, a spokesman with the Arkansas State Police, said Wednesday that authorities here have reached out to Mississippi officials to determine if there are any "common denominators" in the two states' lockup deaths. He said investigators have yet to find a link.
"So far, there is nothing definitive out of those talks that are ongoing," Sadler said.
The Varner Unit has the capacity for 1,714 prisoners. The Department of Correction's total prison population is close to 16,000.
A Section on 08/30/2018