Canine teams sniffing out drugs in prisons

Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 9:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 9:56 a.m.

Major Kevin Dean sees his role in the Department of Corrections as that of a chess player. Dean supervises eight canine teams that each spend 40 hours a week searching for drugs at state prisons.

“What we're doing is really a chess match between the handlers with their dogs and the inmates — we just try to stay one move ahead of the inmates,” Dean said.

Recently staying one move ahead meant finding a pound of marijuana buried in a prison yard before the inmates who are suspected of hiding it could dig it back up.

“That's probably been our biggest find to date, but we aren't looking for big amounts like you find doing highway interdiction,” Dean said. “A half a gram of marijuana inside an institution is like a pound on the street.”

Secretary James McDonough announced that the canine unit was being resurrected earlier this year at the same time he announced that random drug tests would be administered to most department employees. Both programs have turned up evidence of illicit drug use.

Department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said 3,659 of the department's approximately 27,000 employees were given random drug tests between July and November. Of those tested, 108 employees were asked to submit a urine sample for a follow-up analysis.

The preliminary testing involved a $9.75 swab of an employee's mouth. Plessinger said the swabs sometimes return an invalid result or a false positive if someone does not produce enough saliva to activate the drug detecting chemicals. The follow up resulted in 10 employees testing positive for drug use. Plessinger said all 10 were referred to the department's employee assistance program. When McDonough announced the plan in May, he said subsequent positive tests could result in dismissal.

Previously, under former Secretary James Crosby, the department policy was to administer pre-employment drug tests to everyone who was offered a job, but only to test employees for cause, based on their behavior. Of the six employees tested in 2004, three were found to have used drugs.

In late 2005, after the arrests of several officers in connection with a steroid ring, Crosby said he was prepared to begin random drug testing of employees, but the program did not get under way before Crosby was fired by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

McDonough took over the prison system in February after serving nine years as the state's drug czar. Days after McDonough's appointment, his staff began the process of re-forming a canine team to search for drugs inside prison. Crosby's administration had disbanded the team in 2003 within months of Crosby's appointment as secretary.

Dean said since the canine team has re-formed with two officers and two drug-sniffing dogs assigned to each of the four prison regions, he has had an overwhelming response of support. The unit reports to the prison system's Office of the Inspector General, and Dean's office is at Lancaster Correctional Institution outside Trenton.

“The wardens see this as another tool in their arsenal,“ Dean said. “And these drug programs have done a lot to restore the integrity of the prisons.”

The handlers are able to work in two or three prisons each day, sometimes focusing on staff or visitor parking lots, sometimes on inmate cells or sometimes on common areas inside prisons. Dean said correctional officers and inmates do not know when the teams are scheduled to visit and sometimes inmates are wakened in the early morning hours to allow handlers to walk the dogs through dormitories.

“And we look at everyone and every place,” Dean said. “I can't sit here and tell you we have no dirty staff because recent history contradicts that. What I can tell you is that we target anyone who may be trying to take drugs into an institution.”

In a recent case, one of the prison drug dogs alerted on a cell to indicate the presence of a marijuana odor, Dean said. After the inmates who had been housed in the cell were questioned, the dog was taken to the area where inmates prepare to leave the prison on work squads. A pound of marijuana was found buried in the area.

“These dogs and their officers are a tool that we know works very well to stay one move ahead of the inmates.”

Karen Voyles can be reached at 486-5058 or

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