VARNER SUPERMAX: Two more drug-related deaths today.

Two more inmates died this morning at the Varner Supermax prison unit, the fourth and fifth deaths since Sunday as a result of suspected drug use. A prison official also confirmed about a dozen inmates had been treated earlier in the week for drug reactions, though none required hospitalization.

Jim DePriest, Correction Department attorney, identified the inmates who died today as Donovan Cobbs, 26, serving a 10-year sentence for robbery from Sebastian County, and Joe Harris, 55, serving a life sentence from Pulaski County for robbery and other charges. Both were found unresponsive in cells, which weren’t near each other, and later pronounced dead — Cobbs at 5:50 a.m. and Harris at 6:33 a.m.

The State Police was notified to investigate.

“We will not be surprised if it was drugs,” DePriest said, though no firm conclusions will be drawn until State Police and medical examiner reviews are completed.

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This follows three suspected drug deaths at Varner Sunday and Monday, two of them in the Supermax unit.

DePriest also said about a dozen inmates received medical attention Saturday and Sunday. “It’s  fair to say we suspect these were drug-related sicknesses.” The same holds true for today’s deaths, but exactly what substance isn’t known nor is it known if all the deaths and illness come from the same batch of drugs.

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DePriest acknowledged the prison’s long struggle to restrict access and use of K2, a dangerous and hard-to-detect form of synthetic marijuana. It has installed new body scanners for visitors and staff, restricted outside mail because small amounts of the subject can be dissolved in liquid and soaked in paper and posted warnings about the dangers of the drug and promise of arrest if it is found.

“This is of great concern to us,” he said. He said the department had thought it was making strides in controlling use of K2, after a bad year in 2017, when K2 incidents averaged 100 a month and somewhere around 15 deaths were attributed to K2, DePriest said.

He said that the department, systemwide, had counted 153 K2 incidents in the first quarter of this year, 225 in the second and 90 so far this quarter. An incident is counted as the discovery of the substance or the appearance of an inmate being under the influence. The East Arkansas unit has the most cases. Varner has had a total of 32 incidents this year, not counting the deaths, DePriest said, and the spate of illnesses over the weekend.

“It’s extremely important to us to find out how this happened,” DePriest said.

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