Smuggled cell phones pose prison problems

November 17, 2009 7:42:49 PM PST
Cell phones are becoming an increasingly serious problem in prisons. Last year, thousands were confiscated at prisons across California. Now, correctional guards have a new weapon that can literally snuff them out.

Drako is a one-and-a-half-year-old Belgian Malinois. During a recent training session at Solano State Prison, he sniffed out a smuggled cell phone in a desk drawer. Sgt. Wayne Conrad heads the canine unit there.

"If it's there, the dog's going to find it," he told ABC7.

Drako is one of two cell phone-sniffing dogs in the California Penal System. The pilot program is being run at the medium-security prison in Vacaville. Last year, more than 800 cell phones were smuggled inside. Prisoners use them to plan escapes, order gang hits and conduct drug deals.

"It's a problem where safety is an issue. Security is an issue," explained Solano State Prison spokesperson Lt. Cicely Burnett. "They've hidden them in body cavities. They're hidden in just, property that comes in."

They have even been hidden in cakes and pies which relatives and friends bring in during family visits. Their creativity is seemingly endless. But now, the dogs are able to do what staff could not.

Sgt. Conrad says cell phones have an odor that is different from other electronic equipment.

"To tell you the truth, what exactly it is, I couldn't tell you," he told ABC7. "All I can tell you is its different."

Whatever the odor is, it takes about eight weeks to train a dog to detect that unique smell. Drako has been trained to associate his favorite toy with the odor of cell phones. He knows he will get his toy once he sniffs one out.

"Show it to me. Show it to me," Sgt. Conrad told the dog during a recent training.

Drako zeroed in on a printer and began scratching.

"In the dog's mind, I find the odor, I scratch. What I'll do, is from behind the dog, I'll take his toy and I'll throw it right at his nose," Sgt. Conrad explains. "That toy's going to pop up whenever he's scratching."

Sure enough, Drako found the illegal phone and was a happy dog after being rewarded his toy to play with. On days when Drako does not find any cell phones, his trainer plants one at the end of the search for him to find.

"It's important he's always successful," Conrad says. "That's how it works."

There is one prison where cell phones are not a problem, San Quentin. The reason is poor signal. In a manner of speaking, inmates have a hard time getting out.


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