At R.J. Donovan State Prison, staying ahead of the prisoners is a constant cat and mouse game. So, the facility has brought in dogs to help close the gap between what gets in and goes out of the prison.
The greatest threat in the last three years has been the smuggling of mobile phone into prison cells, according to Warden George Neotti. The phones allow inmates to run gangs, traffic drugs and even put deadly hits on guards or anyone outside prison walls.
Using dogs to sniff out contraband in prisons isn’t anything new but using them to detect phones is relatively recent. In 2007, 1,400 phones were found in state prisons. The next year, that doubled to 2,800. Last year, about 7,000 handheld devices were confiscated.
Prison guards say they’ve rounded up plenty of smart phones along with basic inexpensive ones. Android phones, BlackBerrys and iPhones allow inmates to make calls, send text and photo messages and surf the Internet. In turn, the phones can be used to carry out a wide range of plots.
Inside the prisons, talk isn’t cheap. A smart phone is typically worth twice their street value. A smuggler can get more than $500 for an Android phone. The warden says guards have busted prison visitors who’ve tried to sneak in phones to inmates. Secondly, phones have been discovered inside mail or packages that are sent to prisoners. And prison staffers have been found with phones as well. To prevent insiders from corruption, searches on staff are done randomly. Even the warden himself has to undergo a search. In addition, every lunch box and brief case is screened.
In mid-August, the prison added 2 canine officers to its staff. The pure breed Belgian Shepards are worth about $12,000 each. However, taxpayers weren’t billed for them because the dogs were donated. The only costs are feeding, housing and vet bills for dogs.
The dogs and their handlers undergo extensive training in Sacramento before they go on-duty.
Since the dogs’ arrival, guards at Donovan have found about 60 phones. That breaks down to about one device a day.
Officer Klippe specializes in detecting narcotics, while officer Scout is trained in sniffing out cell phones by zeroing in on certain chemicals in them. For security reasons, Scout’s handler Officer Frederick and prison officials won’t tell us what the substance or substances are.
Prison officials say the dogs help to save taxpayers money at a time when the state of California is trying to make up a budget shortfall with officer furloughs. Officer Frederick tells NBC San Diego that a typical random search “used to take about 33 officers, the dogs have cut that down to about 11.” Warden Neotti says the cost cutting is immediate because the average hourly pay for an officer is about $40 an hour.
NBC San Diego recently spent about an hour and a half with the dogs and their human colleagues during a random search of a housing facility. In that time, the dogs helped to find a variety of contrabands. Officers located a crack pipe and a plastic bag that appeared to contain a small amount of crack. They found tobacco stuffed underneath a sink. A tattoo gun was also discovered. Officers tell us unsterilized needles are being linked to a rise in Hepatitis cases in prisons. Guards also found alcohol, know as “pruno” fermenting inside the walls of a urinal. When the plastic bags of pruno were pulled out, their contents smelled like vomit.
But the biggest finds were the phones. In all three were detected. An officer found one of them by simply sifting through a trashcan. The other two came with the help of the dogs. Both of those were inside prisoners’ lockers. One was tucked inside a sock. The second was hidden inside a bag of ramen noodles. Officers say the prisoners think they can throw the dogs off by stuffing contrabands in food. But officers say it’s only a matter of time before the dogs bust them. And they hope the prisoners will soon get that message.