Connecticut residents were surely as appalled as the rest of the world by the photograph of an unmuzzled German Shepherd straining at his leash a few inches in front of a an Abu Ghraib detainee crouched in terror. Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch, suspects they will be equally appalled to learn their state is the only state in the country whose prisons use dogs to terrify and attack and bite prisoners to force them to leave their cells when they won’t do so voluntarily.
How does a cell extraction with dogs work? If an inmate is locked in his cell and refuses orders to “cuff up”, i.e., to be put in handcuffs so he can be escorted from his cell, correctional officers may bring a large unmuzzled dog to his cell side. If the barking animal does not terrify the inmate into compliance, the officers open the door, letting the dog enter, followed by the dog’s handler and other officers. The dog attacks the inmate and will bite whatever it can grasp first. While the inmate tries to fend off the dog, the other officers subdue him and place him in restraints.
The use of dogs for cell extractions has been a well-kept secret in the world of corrections in the United States. We know of no other country in the world that authorizes the use of dogs for this purpose.
But every state other than Connecticut that has used dogs for cell extractions has now given up the practice. Two days after the release of the Human Rights Watch report on the use of dogs for cell extractions, the Iowa department of Corrections announced it was ending the practice effective immediately, having decided it was “not necessary.” Earlier this year, Massachusetts did the same thing, the head of its corrections department concluding that there are other ways to compel an inmate to comply with an order “than sending in an animal to rip his flesh.”
Arizona ended the practice earlier this year as well. Utah ended it in 2001.
That leaves Connecticut as the only state that persists in using this reprehensible practice. Last year, it used dogs for cell extractions eleven times. Dogs were brought next to a prisoner’s cell another nine times for possible use in an extraction.
Forty-nine of the fifty states as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons use alternative and effective means to remove a resisting inmate from his cell – assuming a forced cell extraction is truly imperative, which it rarely is if staff is well trained in de-escalating conflicts.
The Connecticut Department of Corrections should follow their example. It should abandon this cruel, repugnant and unnecessary practice. Many people already believe prisons are brutal and brutalizing places. Using dogs for cell extractions just confirms that view.
Jamie Fellner is director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch and author of Cruel and Degrading: The Use of Dogs for Cell Extractions in U.S. Prisons.