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Urge Gov. Northam to Prohibit State Prisons from Using Dogs Against Inmates

Two Virginia inmates have filed civil-liberties lawsuits alleging that, in separate incidents, guards set attack dogs on them. They both say that at the time they were neither posing no threat nor resisting orders. The inmates further allege that the guards then refused them adequate medical care for the resulting dog bites. They claim lasting physical and psychological injuries. According to the Washington Post, “numerous” other inmates have alleged in letters to a human rights organization that maximum-security prisons in Virginia regularly use dogs to “terrify and attack” inmates. In prison documents filed with one of the complaints (on Pacer, behind a paywall) prison officials deny that the plaintiff was complying with orders at the time of the attack or that he was refused medical care. However, they admit using a dog against him, saying that after the inmate was secured, the dog was pulled back “to prevent additional injury.”

Virginia correctional policy expressly permits the use of dogs to “assist in control of offenders.” This rule authorizes much wider use of dogs against inmates than appears to be permissible in most other states and other countries. While publicly available research is scarce, the Washington Post reports that “many states” and the “U.S. military” expressly prohibit any use of dogs against inmates. Another news source reports that, as of two years ago, five states permitted prisons to use dogs for the specific purpose of extracting an uncooperative inmate from a cell. In 2006, Human Rights Watch reported that it knew of no other nation that permitted this practice.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia prisons refused to comment on the litigation, other than to ask that any “specific, credible allegations” be forwarded to the prisons authority so it “can look into them.” The spokeswoman said that the prison system works with the Department of Criminal Justice Services to certify its canine teams, which are used in part to search for prison contraband. Department of Corrections rules require that prison officers promptly report dog bites and administer appropriate medical care if someone is bitten. The prisons authority did not say that use of its dogs to frighten or harm inmates would violate any of its rules.

The use of dogs against inmates is cruel and unusual, potentially in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and simply too barbaric to be allowed in a modern prison system. Worse, at a time of national racial reckoning, it evokes the horror of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Using dogs is unnecessary in order to maintain order, as shown by the fact that many other state prisons in the United States do not use dogs against inmates. Virginia should ban the practice immediately.

You can help by calling Governor Northam at 804-786-2211. Tell him:

Use of dogs against inmates has no place in a civilized, twenty-first century prison system. Please order that the use of dogs against inmates in Virginia prisons cease immediately.

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