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Drug-sniffing dogs at prisons shouldn’t scare away visitors

Even the friendliest Labrador retriever can seem terrifying to some people. State prison authorities should keep that in mind as they implement a new policy that will subject some prison visitors to checks by drug-sniffing canines. The policy is necessary to stem the flow of illegal drugs into prisons. But scaring away law-abiding visitors could hamper rehabilitation efforts, and authorities should make it clear that visitors with a genuine dog phobia or allergy can opt for a hand-search instead.

The state announced the new rule last month. According to state statistics, in 2011 and the first half of 2012, there were 107 incidents of visitors smuggling narcotics into prison. Overall, nearly half the drugs trafficked into prisons were brought by visitors who came only once. Drugs pose a safety risk and hinder efforts to ensure released prisoners return to society drug-free, so the crackdown is clearly warranted.

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But maintaining social connections with friends and family is also a key to easing inmates’ reentry and preventing recidivism. Prisoners’ rights advocates have argued that if visitors think they will have to endure the dogs it could translate into fewer visitors. But a spokesman for the prison system, Terrel Harris, said visitors with a legitimate reason can request a hand check; the option should have been mentioned in the YouTube video announcing the new policy.

Prisoners’ advocates also complain that the policy unfairly scapegoats visitors for the system’s drug problems, and suggest that staff and volunteers should be sniffed as well. They’re right. It beggars belief to think all drugs in prisons come from visitors.

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