Super-sniffer dog seeks cell phones in prisons

 In News & Events

AP – The Hartford Courant – 04/09/2009

Rhiana (6RR07 Alex x Naku) was raised in SWCT by Cora Martin and Sheri Lussier.

HARTfORD, Conn. – A burly man with a shaved head and a large black paw print tattooed on his right forearm arm guides an eager yellow Labrador retriever past a series of television sets sitting on the floor.

Tucked inside the back of one TV is a cell phone.

“That’s it, baby, see? That’s a girl, see? That’s a girl,” Lt. David DeMatteo — in an unexpectedly high, sweet voice — coaches the dog before she obediently sits down next to the third set.

“Oh! Whatcha you got, baby? Good girl,” DeMatteo enthusiastically praises the pooch, handing over a few valuable pieces of kibble. On the job for about two weeks, Rhianna, a 22-month-old former guide dog trainee, has become the nation’s latest canine enlisted to help combat the growing problem of mobile phones being smuggled into prisons and used by inmates. Besides Connecticut, at least two other state corrections departments — Virginia and Maryland — have also trained dogs to sniff out contraband cell phones.

A ubiquitous communication device in today’s society, cell phones have had dangerous consequences behind bars.

A Baltimore drug dealer has been accused of orchestrating the death of a witness by using a contraband cell phone to make calls from a city jail, where he was facing murder charges in a separate slaying.

Last October, a condemned inmate in Texas made threatening calls to a state senator who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. That cell phone call promoted a statewide prison lockdown and a shakedown for contraband that turned up hundreds of smuggled phones. here have been reports across the country of inmates using the small devices to continue their involvement in all sorts of crimes, such as gang activity, illegal financial transactions and narcotics activity.

In Connecticut, corrections officials hope Rhianna will stem the flow of contraband cell phones before they become a major problem here. Last year, 23 cell phones and parts of cell phones were seized from inmates in the state’s 18 prisons.$They’re hoping to expand the program and train more cell phone dogs.

“The inmates see it. It’s a deterrent just knowing that we have a dog that’s going to do it,” said Deputy Warden Joseph Chapdelaine, commander of the agency’s canine unit. “So, they’re going to be thinking. They know we have dogs that find narcotics, so that’s a deterrent, too.”

Typically, inmates are only allowed to communicate with the outside world through the mail, which is controlled by prison officials, or by using taped and monitored telephones at the facilities.

“What the cell phone does is allow them to completely bypass that entire security,” said Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Corrections.

Theresa C. Lantz, the state’s corrections commissioner, said Rhianna, donated by Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem. A federal law makes jamming radio signals illegal, and some electronic scanning devices have proven to be expensive and unreliable.

“This helps us, a dog helps us, to be able to go into a unit, find it, and us not have to worry about trying to use any other electronic mechanism,” she said.

Prison officials will not reveal anything about the scent that Rhianna picks up on when she’s searching for a cell phone, eagerly sniffing and climbing over and around furniture in a demonstration last week. Chapdelaine said corrections officials anticipate that as cell phone technology changes over the next 10 or 12 years, they may have to “imprint” the dog with a new odor from the phones.

Canine Unit Trainer Luis Melendez Jr. trained Rhianna to sniff out all types of phones on the market.

“Whatever phone there is, I’ve used and every one it’s on,” he said of the special scent.

DeMatteo and Rhianna have spent their first couple of weeks on the job conducting random searches at the state’s prisons, sniffing out dormitories, visiting rooms, libraries and recreation facilities — wherever inmates congregate.

They haven’t found their first contraband phone yet, but DeMatteo says it’s only a matter of time.

Rhianna’s trained behavior of locating cell phones by scent is rewarded by food, so she can only be fed when she finds a phone. That means when DeMatteo brings her home at night and on their days off, he always has to find new places to hide cell phones.

“The first couple times I tried to do it at home, but then she knew all the hiding spots right away, she wouldn’t really concentrate,” he said.

So DeMatteo visits local town halls, fire stations and even a fragrant Crabtree & Evelyn bath and body products store. He’ll hide about a dozen cell phones, wait an hour for their scent to pool and then brings in Rhianna for a search.

In the meantime, the officer has to guard against well-intentioned dog lovers who want to give the sweet- faced pup a treat. He’s not ready for his partner to give up her day job just yet.