The Massachusetts Department of Correction plans to employ drug-sniffing dogs to search visitors at prison entrances in a new attempt to stem the flow of illegal substances and remove "negative temptations" to inmates.
The initiative, announced in a letter to the department's 11,500 inmates and a YouTube video earlier this month, has sparked strong opposition from families, civil libertarians, and prisoner advocates, who say it will discourage relatives from visiting loved ones in prison. They also say it unfairly paints visitors as the sole sources of prisoner drug problems.
"I don't like this at all,'' said Robin Hester of Pawtucket, R.I., who visits her boyfriend monthly at MCI-Norfolk, a medium-security facility. "I don't want to be sniffed by dogs. I didn't break any laws. I don't have a record. Why should I be subjected to that?"
In the YouTube video announcing the random K-9 search, Deputy Commissioner Peter A. Pepe Jr. emphasized the department's long-term goal of returning prisoners to their communities sober and clean. He said that strides made by prisons' substance abuse and education programs are undermined when drugs are smuggled inside and prisoners are released into society unable to cope with the normal stresses of life.
"Drug use is one of the root causes of criminal activity,'' he said in the video. "The continued use of drugs in prison is illegal. It severely impacts our reentry efforts."
According to the department, there were 107 incidents involving drugs introduced to the prison system by visitors from January 2011 through June 2012. Forty-nine percent were trafficked by individuals identified as one-time visitors, whom the department suspects of coming solely to bring drugs, said the department's spokesman, Terrel Harris.
MCI-Shirley had 34 such incidents, the highest in the 17-facility prison system. Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center had 18, followed by MCI-Framingham and MCI-Concord, which each had 12.
Pepe said the prisons currently search inmates, test them, and use dogs to search for drugs inside the facility. The new dog searches at prison entrances, which will be done randomly, are one more weapon in its arsenal against drugs, the department said.
"While we realize that visits are an extremely important part of your lives during your incarceration, the department will not allow your reentry and treatment efforts to be derailed by illicit activities,'' Commissioner Luis S. Spencer wrote in the letter to inmates and staff. "It is our duty to do everything in our power to keep you and correctional staff safe from harm."
In the YouTube video, a black Labrador retriever guided by a guard appears in a waiting area and sniffs at the chairs and lockers. If the dog detects drugs, it is trained to sit down and press its nose to the object and location, a narrator says.
If the dog points to a visitor, that person will be asked to consent to a thorough search by a prison staff member. If drugs are discovered, the visitor may face criminal prosecution and be barred from the prison facilities. The visitor will be denied entry into the prison if he or she refuses the search and will be immediately banned from all correctional facilities, the letter said.
Advocates who work on behalf of inmates say they have contacted the department and are demanding answers to questions about whether program volunteers, guards, and others who work in prisons will also be subjected to the random narcotics dog search.
"I know the department has worked hard to root out the drugs that are coming in, and I'm 100 percent convinced that it is not coming in through visitors alone,'' said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts. "It's also coming in through staff. And if you are going to subject children and the elderly to this kind of humiliating treatment, then I think they should be subjecting staff to it, as well."
Harris said only people listed on inmates' rosters of approved visitors — such as friends, families, and attorneys — will face the random searches. Prison program volunteers and guards will not be randomly searched under the new policy, he said.
Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the proposed policy could violate visitors' Fourth Amendment rights that protect against unreasonable search and seizures. In certain circumstances, it may interfere with the rights of people they visit, he said.
"This is a terrible idea, and it raises serious legal problems,'' Segal said.
The Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, a pastor who heads the Roxbury-based Center for Church and Prison, said he is holding a rally in front of the State House Wednesday morning to protest the proposed change, which he argues runs counter to the department's objectives.
He said the random drug searches at prison entrances would reduce visits by families and relatives, some of whom could have intense fears of dogs. If fewer families visit, he said, inmates are at risk of loneliness and may return to the public in worse shape than when they went in.
"This fundamentally undermines every form of adequate reintegration,'' said Walters-Sleyon.
Advocates and other residents also contend that they are already subjected to intense searches by guards when they visit prison.
"My visits are already limited,'' said one Dorchester woman who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy. She said she sometimes takes the commuter rail to visit her boyfriend at MCI-Concord. "I don't go up there as much. But if I have to be sniffed by a dog, forget about it."
Meghan Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.