Case targets use of drug-sniffing dogs on prison visitors

  • BEN GARVER — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLEA man walks his dogs at Burbank Park on Onota Lake in Pittsfield despite the frigid temperatures, Wednesday, December 27, 2017. Ben Garver

Associated Press
Friday, December 29, 2017

BOSTON — The decision years ago to use dogs in Massachusetts prisons to search visitors for drugs caused uproar among advocates and family members of those behind bars. Now the state’s highest court is wading into the fight.

The Supreme Judicial Court early next month will consider whether the Department of Corrections overstepped its authority when it implemented the policy in 2013 without giving the public a chance to weigh in.

Advocates for prisoners and their relatives have been fighting the use of drug-sniffing dogs for years, arguing the searches are demeaning, could discourage people from visiting and unfairly pushes the blame for the prison drug problem onto families.

“People don’t want to be treated like suspects,” said Lois Ahrens, a prisoner advocate and director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project. “They aren’t the people who are convicted.”

The Department of Correction says it hasn’t received any formal complaints from visitors about the policy. Prisons officials say the dogs — Labrador retrievers and German shorthaired pointers — aren’t aggressive or intimidating.