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Virginia Prison Guards Attack Prisoners with Dogs

On Christmas Day 2020, Curtis Garrett returned to his cell at Sussex 1 State Prison after an altercation with another prisoner. Within minutes, two Patrol Canine Unit officers entered his cell with dogs. Garrett turned around and put his hands behind his back, waiting to be handcuffed.

Instead, according to the lawsuit, the officers unleashed their dogs and ordered them to attack Garrett. “The two canines bit Mr. Garrett’s left arm and right leg while the two officers punched and kicked Mr. Garrett repeatedly,” the lawsuit states. The unprovoked attack left Garrett with permanent nerve damage in his arm and leg.

The other plaintiff, Corey Johnson, recounts a similar experience. Johnson was also involved in a physical altercation with another prisoner. After being hit by several gas canisters during the fight, Johnson laid down on the ground. An officer then ordered his dog to attack the prone prisoner. The lawsuit alleges that unlike the “uneven, surface-level, or zigzagging wounds a canine might leave on a person who continues an altercation in defiance of official orders, Mr. Johnson’s wounds were deep, clean, and had no jagged patterns because he had remained prostrated on the ground during the attack.”

Johnson went to the hospital where he received 21 stitches; he was also left with severe nerve damage as a result of the dog attack.

A VDOC spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but stated that canine units are used solely for the purposes of detecting drugs and other contraband, not for attacking or intimidating prisoners. But the use of canine units inside prisons or in a force capacity inevitably leads to misuse. Dogs are routinely employed to terrorize, intimidate, and maul prisoners. “This widespread practice is not only barbaric—an abject act of dehumanization—but illegal, and cannot be tolerated in a just society,” Popkin stated.

These concerns have caused many states to ban canine units inside their detention facilities. Oregon, for instance, banned the use of dogs to extract prisoners from their cells in 2019. The Human Rights Watch reported over fifteen years ago that the U.S. is the only country in the world that “authorizes the use of dogs to attack prisoners who will not voluntarily leave their cells.” This practice was widely used in the U.S. Army torture prison of Abu Ghraib after the U.S. invasion Iraq where dogs were used to attack and terrorize Iraqi prisoners.

Even the U.S. Military, decades later, revised its regulations regarding the use of canine units. In 2019, the Military Working Dogs (MWD) Program prohibits dogs from guarding “detainees, U.S. military prisoners, or dislocated civilians. Units will not use MWD teams to harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce detainees for interrogation purposes.”

Virginia, however, has a long history of using dogs against prisoners. Popkin argues that attack dogs are a relic of slavery and Jim Crow policies in the South. Canines have been weaponized against those in the Black community for over a century to “terrorize, threaten, and subordinate African Americans,” Popkin observed. “The symbolism of this is not lost on our clients and their families,” the attorney added.

Gay Gardner, a member of the Virginia-based organization Interfaith Action for Human Rights, has heard from dozens of prisoners in VDOC’s maximum security facilities who were brutalized and maimed by unprovoked dog attacks. Most of the incidents involved the use of dogs after prisoners had laid on the ground and stopped fighting or resisting.

During one incident, according to a letter sent to Gardner, a dog bit a prisoner on his buttocks and testicles while lying prone; another prisoner said he has a six-inch scar on his shoulder and has “lifetime wounds” after being attacked by a dog.

In addition to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, Popkin has criticized the culture and policies within VDOC’s maximum security prisons. Before Rights Behind Bars got involved, numerous Virginia state prisoners had filed suit against VDOC for dog attacks. Yet because the prisoners represented themselves, no action was taken to eliminate the use of canines.

Popkin has urged that “Virginia lawmakers are the ones who need to recognize the use of canine attack dogs as a systemic concern and act accordingly to ban the practice of using attack dogs against prisoners.” See: Garrett v. Commonwealth of Virginia, USDC ED VA, Case No. 3:20-cv-00986-JAG. 


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Related legal case

Garrett v. Commonwealth of Virginia