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Lawsuit objects to prison visit searches

Drug-sniffing dogs called threatening

Civil rights groups are suing the state Department of Correction in an effort to at least temporarily stop the agency from using drug-sniffing dogs to search prison visitors for contraband.

The plaintiffs — the ACLU of Massachusetts and Prisoners’ Legal Services, an inmate advocacy group — filed their lawsuit last week in Suffolk Superior Court. They are seeking a preliminary injunction to bar the searches and allow for public comment on the policy, which prison officials implemented in November, court records show.

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“Although DOC is properly concerned about the presence of drugs inside the prisons, intrusive searches by dogs that may terrify children and be regarded as a significant invasion of privacy will inevitably reduce the numbers of visits and make it more difficult for those who do come to have a normal meeting with their loved ones,” the plaintiffs wrote in a legal filing.

Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the Correction Department, defended the use of dogs in a written statement.

“The DOC’s use of passive drug detection dogs enhances prison security and the safety of inmates, their families and staff by stemming the flow of illegal drugs into our prisons,” Harris said. “The dogs are an integral element of our efforts to rehabilitate inmates and return them addiction free into our communities.”

According to the Correction Department’s website, the program was launched in response to “an increase in drug and other contraband-related incidents involving visitors.”

“Nonaggressive drug detecting dogs, generally golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers, are used because of their inherent gentle natures and will be randomly used throughout DOC facilities to help detect the presence of illegal drugs entering DOC correctional facilities,” the department said in a fact sheet posted online.

Records show the dogs are currently in periodic use at maximum- and medium-security prisons.

The plaintiffs say the dogs are vulnerable to “false positives,” in which they can mistake scents for narcotics.

“Even visitors who are cleared to enter the prison after a false positive are likely to feel anxious, humiliated, and legitimately concerned that both they and the prisoner they visit have been cast under suspicion,” the plaintiffs wrote in an a filing supporting their injunction request. A hearing on that request is scheduled for Jan. 24.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.

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