Are Drug-Sniffing Dogs the New Normal?

For those who visit a loved one at a prison, a so-called “passive canine” may sniff for drugs.

By now, everyone has heard about the amazing sense of smell of bomb-sniffing dogs, who we saw on the front lines of the Boston Marathon bombings. But a new policy coming to state prisons that involves dogs trained to sniff out drugs could rattle some cages, and it should cause us to ask: Is Massachusetts turning down the wrong criminal justice path, aiming to fix a problem without getting at its core cause?

Most likely you aren’t spending your days or nights hanging out in prison visiting rooms. But 11,500 people who live in our Massachusetts state prisons depend on visits from their families to give them hope that, one day, they will have a second chance at a productive life. That means letters and visits can be lifelines for prisoners. “Successful family and community reunification,” is part of the mission of Corrections, according to a resolution of the American Corrections Association.

A five-minute video (above) began playing on a loop in the visiting rooms of 17 Massachusetts state prisons, demonstrating how dogs will soon sniff the visiting areas and the visitors in search of contraband. Andrea Cabral, Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), said in an interview that the video and a March 6 memo, which Commissioner Luis Spencer sent to the 11,500 prisoners, are attempts to prepare Massachusetts for the new normal. They’re efforts discuss such protocols as these: If the dog “alerts” to the smell of drugs on a visitor and sits, the visitor must consent to a “thorough search” by Department of Correction (DOC) staff. If not, that person will be banned from entering any DOC facility. Accommodations will be made for those who have allergies or are “dog phobic,” but there is also the possibility, if drugs are found, of arrest on the spot.

But the numbers seem surprisingly low to warrant dogs across the state, according to DOC records provided by Terrel Harris, EOPSS Communications Director. Between January 2011 and June 2013, there were 107 “incidents involving the introduction of drugs to prisons by visitors” at the state’s 17 facilities. Officials insist they have a zero-tolerance drug policy in prisons and that drug detection dogs have sniffed out drugs in letters and packages addressed to prisoners. In 2011 and 2012, the DOC says they confiscated 18 instances of drugs that came in through the mail.

Currently, visitors are sent through a scanner, much like at an airport, and they’re often asked to take off articles of clothing such as shoes, belts, and the like. It’s not uncommon for an officer to inspect the bottom of a visitor’s feet, or to ask the visitor to open his mouth or to go through her hair. But If Cabral has her way, “Just the presence of the dog will keep people from bringing in drugs,” or so she hopes. The searches will be random, she says, and will begin at two prisons—Souza Baranowski and Concord—which she indicated have the highest rates of visitor drug infractions.

Some activists and family members of prisoners are not happy with this impending policy. A recent Globe article was highly critical of the plan, and social justice activists launched a letter and call-in campaign as soon as they got word of Spencer’s memo. Longtime social justice organizer Lois Ahrens, said in an interview that she feels the policy is “demeaning, degrading, and treats the visitor as a suspect.” Ahrens, Executive Director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, also feels drug-sniffing dogs will make visiting even more cumbersome—waits can be long. “But our calls seem to be working and the policy might be on pause,” she added. On the DOC website, the original video recently has been shortened from the one above to show only a very friendly-looking golden retriever, and a new fact sheet has been added, possibly to make the process less intimidating and to justify the rationale.

A search of the visiting policies on DOC websites in nearby states showed no dog-sniffing policies mentioned in New York, Connecticut, Maine, or Rhode Island. New Hampshire considered dog detection but ultimately decided not to embrace the policy, said Jeff Lyons, Public Information Officer for their DOC, in a phone conversation. Vermont does allow drug-sniffing canines. But certainly, nationwide, there is no consensus. Some states such as California only allow visitors’ cars to be sniffed by dogs—considered less intrusive in an Oklahoma litigated case than sniffs of “bodies.”

While dogs are certainly useful as a way of sniffing out bombs and contraband, is this policy really the best way to stem drugs from entering Massachusetts prisons? The DOC did not come up with research when I asked. An international study conducted from Australia in 2008 on how contraband gets into prison raised concerns about the effectiveness of random dog searches. Without secrecy, the study says, searches are not as effective, and secrecy is nearly impossible. Searches slow down as soon as dogs are present, and instead of acting as a deterrent, the dogs act as signals that such searches are in process.

Here’s an interesting caveat: No one in the DOC is currently recommending dog-sniffing of staff, lawyers, or volunteers. Spokesperson Harris said in an email that the DOC found only “seven incidents of employees introducing drugs or contraband into the DOC.” His list was compiled from “a database search for ‘drugs’ and investigations for the ‘introduction of contraband’ and/or ‘criminal conduct while on duty’ for dates 1/1/11 through 3/21/13.”

This seems ridiculously low. There are easily hundreds of incidents nationwide of correctional officers bringing in drugs, cell phones and other contraband, readily searchable online. Nationwide arrests of federal prison guards—in part, for smuggling contraband—increased by 90 percent over the last decade. A Globe editorial put it well: “It beggars belief to think all drugs in prisons come from visitors.” To solve this problem in Massachusetts, Ahrens said “there needs to be a real internal investigation of DOC employees, staff, and guards.”

Meanwhile, per the Globe and Jim Pingeon, attorney at Prisoners Legal Services (PLS), groups such as the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and PLS have discussed suing over this issue. However, whether or not there is a legal issue involved, if Massachusetts wants to get serious on ridding its prisons of drugs, then it better take a holistic approach. Instead of just looking at the visitors, we need to consider the whole picture—a picture that also includes the very people tasked with keeping prisons running in the first place.