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Virginia is using dogs to ‘terrify and attack’ prisoners, say lawsuits that describe one man as mauled in his cell

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Curtis Garrett was standing in cell 3C38 on Christmas Day, four months shy of his release date, when the dogs showed up.

The inmate had retreated to his cell and closed the door after fighting with another prisoner who attacked him with a broom handle in the mess hall. When Garrett saw two members of the Patrol Canine Unit with two dogs outside his window, he turned around and put his hands behind his back. He expected the officers to cuff him.

But they didn’t, at least not immediately, that day in Sussex I State Prison, according to a recently filed lawsuit against Virginia and employees of the state’s Department of Corrections. It lays out the details above and describes a violent scene moments later when “without warning or provocation” the dogs were unleashed and ordered to attack.

“The two canines bit Mr. Garrett’s left arm and right leg while the two Officers punched and kicked Mr. Garrett repeatedly,” the lawsuit reads. “Mr. Garrett collapsed to the ground under the force of the Patrol Canine Unit’s attack.”

The officers, it says, then pulled him up, without ordering the dogs to release their hold.

“The canines sank their teeth deeper into Mr. Garrett’s arm and leg when he was pulled up into the air, causing them to hang in the air, still attached to Mr. Garrett by their teeth as he was lifted,” it reads. “While the canines’ jaws clenched down on Mr. Garrett’s left arm and right leg, [the officers] slammed Mr. Garrett’s body against the wall of his cell. The Officers proceeded to cuff Mr. Garrett’s hands behind him.”

Using dogs as weapons against prisoners has been prohibited by many states and even the U.S. military. Revised regulations from 2019 for the Military Working Dog Program state that canines “will not guard detainees, U.S. military prisoners, or dislocated civilians. Units will not use MWD teams to harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce detainees for interrogation purposes.”

And yet, two recently filed lawsuits and numerous letters from inmates sent to a human rights organization describe Virginia’s maximum-security prisons as regularly using “unmuzzled canines to terrify and attack prisoners.”

More than that, they depict officers as ordering dogs to bite inmates who were already lying on the ground or alone in cells, and then failing to provide adequate medical treatment for their injuries.

After reading through the lawsuits and letters, I sent a request for comment to the Virginia Department of Corrections. On Friday, spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said the department could not comment on the newly pending litigation and had not yet filed a response to the legal complaints.

When asked about the letters, she said, “If there are specific, credible allegations I would encourage the advocacy group to let us know so we can look into them.”

The urge to dismiss convicted criminals as unreliable sources is understandable, and we should view these claims with skepticism. What we shouldn’t do is ignore them. Even if we give the department the benefit of the doubt and assume that the dogs are used only in extreme circumstances against the unruliest inmates, the lawsuits and letters raise concerning questions about what is happening inside institutions charged with rehabilitating people.

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They also pose important questions for us as a society: Is this who we are? Are we okay with a state’s prison system maintaining a practice that has roots in the most shameful moments of our country’s history and that other places have already determined is not acceptable?

The lawsuits, which were filed in amended form in January, come at a time when many prisons have put in place programs that allow inmates to train dogs and have moved away from ones that rely on inmates fearing dogs.

In 2019, the Oregon Senate passed legislation banning the use of dogs to remove inmates from their cells after a lawsuit was launched on behalf of a mentally ill man. And 15 years ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report saying it knew “of no other country in the world that authorizes the use of dogs to attack prisoners who will not voluntarily leave their cells.”

Kelly Jo Popkin of Rights Behind Bars, which, along with D.C.-based firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer is representing the two men, describes Virginia as an “outlier state” when it comes to using dogs as weapons in prisons.

She also points to the historical context that makes the practice especially disturbing given the disproportionate rates of Black Americans who are incarcerated.

“Dogs have been used by law enforcement to terrorize, threaten, and subordinate African Americans since the birth of this country, and the use of these dogs against incarcerated individuals in Virginia state prisons is just one example of many,” she says. “The symbolism of this is not lost on our clients and their families.”

One inmate’s mother, she says, at one point compared her son’s wounds to those caused by whips.

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Before Rights Behind Bars got involved in the recent cases, Popkin says more than a dozen other legal complaints had been filed in Virginia related to dog attacks against inmates. Inmates were representing themselves in those cases, and the challenges of doing so eventually resulted in those cases not moving forward, she says.

“Ultimately, 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,” Popkin says. “There’s something about these stories that show how the use of dogs against prisoners is so degrading, and completely dehumanizing.”

A statement provided by a representative of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer reads: “The correct course is clear: The VADOC policies permitting the use of dogs to attack people in custody must be changed.”

Gay Gardner of the Virginia-based organization Interfaith Action for Human Rights says she has received letters over the last several years from inmates at the state’s maximum-security prisons that describe dog attacks. In many of them, she says, inmates describe the dogs being brought in when an altercation or another event alarms the staff — and the attacks as occurring after the situation has already calmed down.

In one letter I read, a man describes lying face down when a dog bit him on his testicles and buttocks, injuring him. In another letter, an inmate tells of having a six-inch scar on his shoulder where a dog bit him as he was trying to get away from a prisoner who attacked him from behind on the basketball court.

“Once I got halfway upon my feet I observed the dog and K-9 officer about 10 feet in front of me,” he writes. “Once I saw them I knew I was probably safe, so I started to go ahead and lay down the rest of the way when the K-9 officer let the dog attack me. It bit me when I was already on the ground. It then let go and he let it bite me again.”

He goes on to admit that he has caused trouble and isn’t a model inmate. “Still though,” he writes, “I did not deserve to be attacked by a dog. I have lifetime wounds.”

The other lawsuit describes inmate Corey Johnson getting into a fistfight on May 2, 2020, near telephone booths at Red Onion State Prison and being shot five times in his back with gas canisters. Afterward, as he lay on the ground, face down, arms out, an officer gave the orders for a dog to attack him, the lawsuit says. It describes the officer as encouraging “the canine to prolong the attack by patting its back and saying ‘good boy’ as the dog bit Johnson’s arm and dragged him several feet across the floor.

“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 prostrate on the ground during the attack,” the lawsuit reads.

It goes on to say he was taken to an emergency room, where he received 21 stitches and was left with nerve damage.

Garrett, in his lawsuit, is described as being unable to write or clutch anything with his dominant left hand, and as having a “dead leg” that is almost completely numb and pain that radiates up his leg if he puts weight on his right foot.

He was taken to the hospital after the incident on Christmas in 2018, the lawsuit says, but when he returned, he was placed in solitary confinement for about five weeks “with almost no medical care.” He received medical attention, it says, only after his wounds grew infected and he pretended to be dead in his cell.

This may seem a distant concern, affecting people locked behind walls, but one part of the lawsuit illustrates too clearly why what happens within prisons affects those outside of them. Many inmates eventually get released, and the hope is that they leave prison in a better position to contribute to society than when then entered it.

Garrett’s release date came in May 2019.

The lawsuit describes his mental health as having substantially deteriorated since that day.

“He self-isolates in his room and at times panics because he thinks he hears dogs barking outside his door,” it reads. “Mr. Garrett was institutionalized at Tucker Mental Institution on Wednesday, December 2, 2020 for a mental breakdown caused by trauma associated with the canine attack and its aftermath.”

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