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Virginia leads the nation in guard dog attacks on prisoners

Virginia Public Radio, Sept. 27, 2023.

By Sandy Hausman

Each year, thousands of dogs are trained for service in the U.S. military, on police forces and in prisons.

Most will be used for drug detection or to stop suspects attempting to get away, but in several states they can also be used to keep prisoners in line.

“In the last six years 295 people who are incarcerated have been attacked. Now Virginia is the extreme outlier. 271 people in Virginia prisons have been attacked over the last six years," says Hannah Beckler, an editor with the investigative unit of Insider – an online news platform.

She spent a year researching this subject and discovered dogs were trained to attack at this state’s high-security prisons: Sussex One and Two, Wallens Ridge, Keen Mountain, River North and Red Onion.

"I spoke with the current warden of Red Onion State Prison – Rick White. Mr. White told me that the dogs are used basically for what they call presence. Presence is the implied violence of these dogs –- their barking, snapping, lunging at the lead is sufficient enough to terrify people into compliance."

White said the use of canines was valuable, because it spared correctional officers from getting into dangerous situations – like violent fights. The problem, Beckler says, is that dogs don’t always know who to attack.

“I documented more than a dozen attacks on corrections officers themselves, so the dogs are very aggressive. I had several corrections officers tell me that they were personally afraid of the dogs. Former dog handlers themselves admit that the dogs are trained to –- I think one told me, ‘hate everyone.’”

Former prisoner Thomas Rose agreed after getting into a fight with another inmate.

“He was mentally disturbed to be honest with you, talking out of his mind – said he was hearing voices. Out of nowhere, he picked up a 55-gallon trash can and threw it at me. I grabbed him and restrained him and took him to the floor."

Rose claimed guards separated them, sprayed him with mace and – while he lay on the floor – ordered a dog to attack.

“I have 40 lacerations on my leg,” he says.

Rose suffered permanent nerve damage, causing lifelong numbness. At Prison Legal News, editor Paul Wright has reported other incidents where canines were released and innocent parties were injured.

"Attack dogs can and do inflict horrific injuries on people. The dog is literally a weapon," he says.

He and Hannah Beckler note that the American South has a long history of using dogs to hunt and police African-Americans.

“I’d say you can probably trace that going back to slave plantations 160 years ago,” Wright says.

“Then we see it again in 1963 in Birmingham," Beckler adds.

Here in Virginia she found that a number of inmates had sued the state for wrongful attacks by canines.

“Eighteen men were hospitalized for severe crush injuries, lacerations. Many required multiple surgeries for severe septic infections, which is deadly, but the emotional and psychological toll is equally extreme, so all of the men I spoke with live with recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, panic attacks and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

In 2021, the state settled two of those cases out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

The Department of Corrections did not respond to our request for an interview on this subject, but officials may have to defend themselves when state lawmakers convene in Richmond early next year. They’ll consider more funding for prison oversight and a possible ban on the use of dogs to attack or intimidate prisoners.