by Leah Sakala, March 25, 2013

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections plans to begin using drug sniffing dogs to screen families and friends who come to visit loved ones in prison. We submitted a letter urging Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Spencer to halt this harmful and degrading policy in its tracks.

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections should immediately cancel the plan to use dogs to screen visitors to correctional facilities

by Peter Wagner, March 21, 2013

March 21, 2013
Commissioner Luis S. Spencer
Massachusetts Department of Corrections
50 Maple Street, Suite 3
Milford, MA 01757-3698

Dear Commissioner Spencer,

I am writing as the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative based in Easthampton, MA to strongly urge the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to immediately cancel the plan to use dogs to screen visitors to Department of Corrections facilities. This policy will unnecessarily deter family visits and thereby make it harder for people released from custody to successfully rejoin their communities.

Social science research has repeatedly found that allowing incarcerated people to preserve family and community ties is essential for facilitating reentry and reducing recidivism. In-person visits allow family members to stay in touch and maintain their relationships through periods of incarceration.[1] Using dogs to search family members, friends, clergy, volunteers, and other visitors is deeply invasive and degrading, and can turn essential family visits into potentially traumatizing experiences. For example, a child who is deeply afraid of dogs will resist visiting an incarcerated parent if he or she must undergo canine screening. Subjecting visitors to dog screening not only harmful, but also unnecessary, as the vast majority of correctional systems around the country maintain secure facilities without resorting to such extreme measures.

Additionally, the nation’s leading correctional professional organizations all agree that correctional facilities should encourage, not discourage, community members who wish to visit their loved ones in prison. The American Correctional Association, for example, urges correctional facilities to support “successful family and community reunification.”[2] The Re-Entry Policy Council, a joint project of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, created to facilitate incarcerated individuals’ reintegration in the community, recommends that correctional institutions “help to re-establish, expand, and strengthen relationships between prisoners and their families.” [3]

The dog sniffing visitor screening policy runs in entirely the wrong direction. Rather than encourage, it will discourage crucial family contact, impeding reentry and contributing to increased recidivism. It should be canceled immediately. Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.


Peter Wagner

CC: Governor Deval Patrick and Chief of Staff Brendon Ryan; Andrea Cabral, Executive Secretary of Public Safety.


[1] See, for example, Minnesota Department of Corrections, Effects of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism, November 2011. Available at:

[2]American Correctional Association, “Public Correctional Policy on Reentry of Offenders,” resolution 2001-3, passed August 15, 2001, reviewed and amended Aug. 16, 2006 and August 6, 2011. Published in American Correctional Association, Public Correctional Policies 2012, 79. Available at:

[3] Council of State Governments, Reentry Policy Council, Policy Statement 13 in Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council: Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community (New York: Council of State Governments, January 2005). Available at:

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