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Massachusetts: Lawsuit Filed to Stop Dog Searches of Prison Visitors

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLSM) and attorney Leonard Singer filed suit against the Massachusetts Department of Correction in January 2014 to prevent prison officials from using drug-sniffing dogs to search visitors.

“Putting visitors through the humiliation of dog searches will reduce visits far more than it reduces drug flow,” PLSM executive director Leslie Walker said of the searches, which were introduced by the DOC in November 2013 due to a purported increase in drugs and contraband being smuggled in by visitors. “This is counterproductive because all the research shows that family visits are key to successful reentry after prison.”

If a dog alerts to the presence of drugs, visitors must consent to a pat search or strip search or be barred from visiting.

“In order to prove the dog wrong, visitors will have to agree to intrusive and humiliating searches,” said ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. “This is senseless. We should be encouraging family visits, not discouraging those who are frightened of dogs. Anybody who really was carrying drugs would turn away if there were dogs at the facility on that day, and would simply come back another day.”

Attorneys visiting prisoners were also subject to searches by drug-sniffing dogs, though after the suit was filed the court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting such searches. The use of dogs to search other visitors was allowed to continue, however.

“Studies have shown that when you search people at random, without cause, you are going to have a high rate of false alerts,” Walker warned. “And the dog’s handler can unconsciously signal the dog who to suspect, which can create racial bias.”

The lawsuit acknowledges that the DOC can take action to stem the flow of drugs into the prison system, but asserts the dog search policy is illegal “because it was adopted without providing the public with notice and an opportunity to comment, as required by law for any new regulation,” according to a joint statement issued by PLSM and the ACLU.

The plaintiffs have also argued that drug-sniffing dogs scare children and some adult visitors, which “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.”

In response, the DOC posted an online fact sheet that said the dogs are “non­aggressive” and “generally golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers.” DOC spokesman Terrel Harris added that using dogs to search visitors was “an integral element of our efforts to rehabilitate inmates and return them addiction free into our communities.”

But Lois Ahrens, director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, said visitors are not the main source of drugs and other contraband, and that prisoners are already strip-searched after they receive visits.

“The DOC needs to look at staff,” she noted. “Under the new policy, most correctional officers will still be free to come and go without screening.”

The case remains pending and a trial date has not yet been scheduled. See: Nathanson v. Spencer, Suffolk County Superior Court (MA), Docket No. 2014-00023-B.  

Additional sources: Boston Globe,,

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Related legal case

Nathanson v. Spencer