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State lawmakers consider limits on use of attack dogs in prisons

Dogs are trained by the U.S. military to attack enemies and by the state of Virginia as part of prison security operations.
U.S. Department of Defense
Dogs are trained by the U.S. military to attack enemies and by the state of Virginia as part of prison security operations.

Last summer, 51-year-old Rodney Powell was heading for his job at the prison kitchen when a dog trained to bark, snarl and attack on command came after him.

“As soon as the door closed behind me, someone popped the gate open, and the dog ran out and just attacked me for no reason," he recalls. "I was bit on my right knee, I bruised my ribs and I hurt my back. I slammed up against the door, trying to fight the dog off.”

Today he suffers nightmares, panic attacks and back pain.

“They said my L4, L5 and L6 are damaged, and the doctor here wants me to have surgery.”

He filed a grievance, but administrators concluded no one was at fault.

“I guess the dog took off his leash and opened the gate by himself,” Powell says.

He doesn’t actually blame the dogs and claims to have seen prison guards abusing them to provoke attacks.

“The dog could be just laying down on the sidewalk, and they’ll kick the dog and rile the dog up to make him bark and lunge at you.”

When Delegate Holly Seibold learned about the situation, she was alarmed.

“I had no idea that we were still using dogs in prison, and that out of the entire United States, 92% of the bites are here in our commonwealth," she notes.

Seibold, a Democrat, reached out to Republican Delegate Mike Webert to put limits on how dogs can be deployed.

“Delegate Webert and I agreed that something needs to be done. We need to curtail the amount of bites that are happening in our prisons. It’s a human rights violation.”

She says the Virginia Department of Corrections objected to a complete ban on canines, so a compromise was proposed.

“The handlers need to seek warden approval or supervisor’s approval before using them, and they can only be used when there is a fight of three people or more.”

That is a change from how dogs are now used.

“They are currently using them all day every day to intimidate prisoners,” Seibold explains.

House Bill 159 does ban the use of attack dogs in juvenile detention centers, and they can still be employed to search for drugs in adult prisons. Seibold admits it will be difficult to enforce her bill unless lawmakers also approve full, on-going funds for an ombudsman to oversee state correctional centers.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief