At Bucks County Correctional Center, a popular method for smuggling illegal drugs is dipping paper or fabric into diluted narcotics, a process called “soak and spray.”
When done right, it coats ordinary objects with powerful-in-small-dose synthetics like suboxone and fentanyl that are invisible to the human eye, making them easier to smuggle into the jail because they’re harder to detect.
But not to the nose of a dog.
While drug-detecting canines have worked alongside police and other law enforcement agencies for decades, they are relatively rare in Pennsylvania county jails like Bucks’.
Earlier this month, Corrections Director David Kratz announced a pending purchase of a year-old, yet-to-be-named Belgian Malinois to serve as its first K9 officer in the jail.
Bucks County plans to spend $3,500 for the dog, which resembles a German shepherd, and the associated training.
“We think this could be a game changer for us,” Kratz said.
Drug smuggling is a perpetual problem for jails in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, which increases risks of violence and overdoses among inmates, and security and health risks for corrections officers.
Last year, a now-former Bucks County corrections officer was charged with selling suboxone, an opioid replacement drug that can be abused, to an inmate for $5,000.
In 2020, several Bucks inmates and a former corrections officer were charged with distributing illegal drugs in the jail between October 2018 and July 2019.
The of synthetic drugs that can be diluted and mixed into crayons, ink and applied to paper prevalence and reconstituted is an increasing source of the problem, according to corrections officials.
Jail K-9s make impact in Northampton, Montgomery counties
Correctional centers with K-9 programs describe them as effective deterrents and time savers.
Northampton County introduced a Belgian Malinois named Dani into its jail in 2018. She and her handler were there until last year, when the officer took a new job, Northampton Deputy Director of Administration Becky Bartlett said. The county is awaiting a new dog.
Northampton County officials believed the dog would save money by reducing overtime costs associated with contraband searches and unnecessary drug tests to check suspicious items, according to media reports.
The dog was a time saver with cell searches, since she was able to search large groups more efficiently than multiple officers, Bartlett said.
There were no problems with the dog’s behavior and inmates’ reaction to the presence of a dog was “generally OK,” she added.
“Some inmates did have a fear of the dog either because they were afraid of dogs in general, or they were afraid the dog might find drugs,” Bartlett added.
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Neighboring Montgomery County Correctional Center has used K-9 officers for more than 20 years, primarily for drug detection, but they are fully certified in patrol and detection, as well, Warden Sean McGee said.
Currently, they have three dogs named Leo, Buddy and Duke. Two are a Dutch shepherds and the third is a German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix.
The dogs stay with handlers during work shifts, but sleep in a special kennel at the jail. They do not have contact with inmates, McGee added.
The dogs assist with searching incoming mail and vehicles in the parking lot, identify contraband that is not easily visible to staff, as well as maintain a security presence for staff and inmates.
They have also been called to assist local police departments who have disbanded their K9 units, McGee said.
The presence of the dogs is an effective deterrent, said Josh Weaver, a Montgomery County corrections officer who is the handler for Leo. Some visitors, when they see the dogs, decide not to come in, he said.
“It happens more than you think,” added Chris Miller, handler for Buddy, who recently alerted on narcotics inside a car in the parking lot.
The methods people use to conceal drugs are very creative, added corrections Officer Nick Petitti, whose dog is Duke.
He recalled a dog hit on a photograph sent to an inmate. It turned out to be two identical photographs glued together to appear as one. Inside were strips of suboxone.
A few years ago, Leo alerted on a Bible that someone mailed an inmate. Authorities found 24 suboxone strips — worth thousands of dollars inside the jail — hidden in the hardcover, Weaver said.
All three dogs are trained to passively alert, meaning they will sit in the spot where they smell the narcotics. Sometimes a dog will sit on a bed because of the smell on the sheets as a result of sweat. When the inmate is drug tested, the result comes back positive, Miller said.
Dogs are a long-term commitment
While its K-9 unit has been successful, the obligations associated with it get expensive, McGee said.
Beyond the food and vet costs, there are manpower issues surrounding mandatory training, he said. There are also additional health concerns about drug exposure for dogs and their handlers, McGee said.
Bringing in a specially trained dog is also a 10-year commitment, Bucks County’s Kratz said.
A supervising officer will be assigned as his 24-hour caregiver during training and he will be with the handler during regular work shifts including rounds.
A temporary kennel will be set up at the jail and a local veterinarian has offered to provide free care, which will help control costs, Kratz said.
The still-unnamed puppy is wrapping up initial behavior training. A Connecticut police department contracted for the dog as part of its search and detain K-9 unit, but it was too small for the job, Kratz said.
The county hopes to acquire the dog next month, and it will begin six weeks of intensive training through the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Medicine before he is introduced into the jail.
How the inmates and staff will react to the four-legged presence is unclear, Kratz said. But he has a hunch.
“The challenge will be people will want to pet him,” he said.