Critics Fight Dog Searches of Prison Visitors
The Mass. Department of Corrections is considering a new policy that would subject prison visitors to searches by drug-sniffing dogs.
“There’s always a problem with people trying to bring things into prisons that shouldn’t be there,” Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, told the Advocate. “We always look for ways to keep our facilities safe.”
According to DOC data, last year there were 92 reported incidents of visitors bringing contraband items—a category that includes cell phones and weapons as well as drugs—into state prisons, up from 83 the previous year. “Correction officials largely agree that two main sources of drug introduction into the prisons are visitors and mail,” says the DOC, which already uses dogs to search mail for drugs. “The introduction of contraband into correctional institutions increases prison violence, facilitates escapes, compromises staff and inmate safety and negatively impacts reentry efforts.”
But Lois Ahrens, director of Northampton’s Real Cost of Prisons Project, argues that the proposed policy is an overreaction that would, in fact, hurt efforts to help offenders re-enter their communities after their release.
“There is not one single study about people in prison and re-entry that doesn’t say that people’s success in coming back home is related directly to contact with family members and community [while in prison], so when they go back home, there’s home to go to,” Ahrens said.
There are already enough barriers—distance, a lack of transportation—that make it hard for many families to visit relatives in prison; the prospect of a K9 search when they get there “is another reason that will keep people from going,” Ahrens said.
Prison visitors, she added, already undergo strict scrutiny; in addition to walking through a metal detector and being scanned with a hand-held wand, they may have to remove their shoes and items in their hair, turn up their collars, take off their glasses. Guards can also physically search visitors if they suspect they’re carrying contraband. “To add to this that they’re going to have guards [with dogs] going around sniffing people—it’s just one more way to denigrate people, I think, and to make people feel badly about going and visiting, ” Ahrens said.
Through her contacts among prisoners’ rights and civil liberties groups, Ahrens has called on supporters to contact EOPSS Secretary Andrea Cabral and DOC Commissioner Luis Spencer to protest the proposal.
Harris told the Advocate the department has received no public feedback about the plan. The DOC, however, has released information apparently intended to allay concerns about it. Searches would be done randomly, not every day, according to the department. “Non-aggressive drug detecting dogs, generally Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers” would be used “because of their inherent gentle natures.” The dogs would be leashed and controlled by trained personnel and would “not bark, snarl, paw, or lunge at the individual who alerts them.”
If a dog alerts guards to the possible presence of drugs, the visitor would be asked for his or her consent before being searched. If the visitor refuses, he or she would be denied entrance that day and barred from all DOC facilities (the same penalty applied to visitors who refuse a search after raising an alert while passing through a metal detector). Barred visitors can appeal that decision. In addition, visitors who bring a doctor’s note confirming that they are allergic to dogs would be accommodated, according to DOC. The policy would not apply to prison volunteers, contractors or attorneys visiting their clients “at this time,” DOC adds.
Such assurances, however, do little to appease critics. According to Ahrens, several groups are planning to sue DOC over the proposal.•