Dogs have long been used to find drugs in prisons, but the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has found a new use for them: sniffing out cell phones.
Three canines were specially trained by Division of Correction K-9 Unit officers to detect cell phones as part of stepped-up efforts to stop contraband from getting into state prisons. In the past few years, Maryland inmates have increasingly been caught with cell phones, which in some cases have been used to arrange drug deals or even killings from behind bars.
The new unit is part of a larger plan to find contraband. Other efforts include increased intelligence staff and technology at prison gate entries.
The efforts are "about change in the way we think and in the way we do business," said Division of Correction Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer during a news conference yesterday. He said prison gates aren't only intended to keep prisoners in, but also "to keep things out."
The dogs have been on the job only about six weeks, but overall the number of cell phones confiscated behind bars is on the rise this year. In the first six months of last year, prison officials confiscated 396 phones, but this year they have found 456, a 15 percent increase. The largest number, 259, were confiscated in the old Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. Officers found 111 in a minimum-security pre-release facility on Greenmount Avenue in the city, and they confiscated 12 from inmates at Supermax, the state's most secure prison.
The phones have been getting through security with visitors, volunteers and corrections employees, officials said, enabling inmates to keep in contact with the outside world - and sometimes to commit crimes.
In February, 28 people who police said were gang members were charged with making calls from prison, including one who is accused of running the Bloods over the phone while locked up. Last July, a murder-for-hire scheme in Baltimore County was ordered by an inmate using a cell phone from state prison.
Cell phones in prison are dangerous not only to the public but also to employees, said Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He said that there is a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to staff who smuggle in phones.
"We want to find [contraband] as it comes in, not once it's in," Stouffer said.
Possession of a cell phone behind bars is a misdemeanor, but Maynard said he will lobby the General Assembly to make it a felony.
Cell phones have become a hot commodity behind bars, but officials said information about the going rate for them was not immediately available. In February, a corrections department source knowledgeable about the smuggling of contraband into state prisons said they were fetching $350 to $400 apiece or $500 for two. Chargers cost as much as $150 at the time.
The department got the idea for search dogs from Virginia. Because trained dogs are expensive, Maryland's corrections department began training them in-house.
"I didn't think it could be done," said Canine Unit Commander Major Peter Anderson. However, two Belgian Malinois and a springer spaniel proved otherwise.
During yesterday's demonstration at the shuttered Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a black-and-white springer spaniel named Taz searched a prison cell made up to look like it was in use. After a few minutes, Taz discovered a cell phone in a carved-out book, which Anderson said is a typical hiding place.
"It's a matter of teaching association," he said. When the dog smells a certain odor, it is then rewarded and remembers the scent, he said.
It took Taz, and colleagues Alba and Rudd, the Belgian Malinois, a few weeks' training in a Hagerstown facility. Normally the process would take about 10 weeks, but Taz, a veteran at finding drugs, learned the new odor in a little over a month, Anderson said.
In addition to phones and chargers, officers often find separate electronic cards that store the personal information from a phone, such as numbers and text messages. The unit will typically act on information from intelligence units but also does random searches.
Anderson said his unit is the only one in the country that specifically trains dogs to find phones, but a few other states use dogs for that purpose.
"I think every state will do this in a short time," he said.