(Editor’s note: In the spring 2003 edition of CDC Today, this published piece focused on the five contraband-sniffing K-9s employed by the department at the time. According to the CDCR website, today there are 49 canine teams total. Canine searches are scheduled at different institutions throughout the state on a random basis. )
Don’t tell Major, the 6-year-old purebred Belgian Malinois ‘employed’ at California State Prison, Solano, he’s there to work. This dog thinks he goes to prison every day to have fun.
Three prisons – CSP-Solano, Correctional Training Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison – employ specially trained dogs and handlers to help stop the flow of illicit drugs. For Major and his K-9 colleagues at the other prisons, the serious business of sniffing out drugs is one big game.
On a bright late April morning, Major and his handler, Correctional Officer Jonathan Whitfield, and four other members of CSP-Solano’s Investigative Services Unit pay a surprise visit to a housing unit. Whitfield and his dog wait outside while the rest of the team clears the inmates from a 14-bunk dormitory on the upper tier. Then, with inmates in the housing unit watching from a distance, Whitfield leads Major upstairs into the dorm.
“Let’s go, Major! Where is it? Where is it?” Whitfield says to the dog, directing him to look under bunks and inside lockers. Straining against his short leash, Major scrambles around with his nose to the floor and stands on his hind legs to sniff an upper bunk.
He’s looking for his favorite pull toy, a rolled and knotted bath towel Whitfield has tucked in the back of his belt. When Whitfield opens a locker next to a bunk, Major pokes his head inside and starts frantically scratching the locker’s floor like he’s digging a hole. That’s how he responds when he smells even residual amounts of marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and other street drugs.
Whitfield then points Major to the rest of the dorm. At the other end of the tight space, the dog starts scratching again at the foot of a pair of bunks.
Major completes his inspection in less than three minutes and Whitfield toss him his toy. Major catches it in his mouth, wrestles it to the ground, and then dares Whitfield to try to get it back.
“That’s the only reward he gets,” Whitfield explains, pulling on the end of the knotted towel as the dog happily refuses to let go.
Major’s two alerts constitute probably case to search the dorm so the team’s other officers and two officers from the housing unit roll up their sleeves, pull on latex gloves, and get to work. They peer into shoes, pat down clothing, roll back bedding, inspect toiletries and medications, and thumb through stacks of books, magazines and papers.
The hour-long search produces a syringe as well as an inmate-made stabbing weapon. The four inmates who sleep in the two pairs of bunks where Major altered agree to undergo a drug test.
Forget the Hollywood stereotype about dogs in prison. The department only employs ‘sniffer’ dogs to look for contraband. They have no contact at all with inmates.
The five dogs working at the three prisons got their start as part of a statewide pilot project to test various drug interdiction methods. When the project ended several years ago, the three prisons elected to maintain their own K-9 programs.
CSP-Solano’s K-9 team conducts as man as several searches a day, although Major can only work for about an hour at a stretch before he needs a break. During work hours, when he’s not sniffing for drugs, the dog returns to the kennel on prison grounds. During off-duty hours, Major lives at Whitfield’s home. Whitfield and the other K-9 officers receive a monthly stipend to cover the expense of feeding and caring for the dogs, which officially are prison property.
To ensure that Major does his job properly, Whitfield carefully keeps the dog from interacting with anyone other than the five members of his team, who are trained to handle Major on days when Whitfield isn’t working.
“It’s a team effort when we’re working,” explains Whitfield. “I can’t do anything without my partners.”
CSP-Solano’s team also includes Correctional Officer Noemi Soliz and Nando, the Belgian Malinois she’s handled for three years; the two dogs work separately. Whitefield also credits Warden Tom Carey and his associates with making the program possible.
In addition to searching for drugs on prison grounds, CSP-Solano’s K-9 unit, like those at CTF and Salinas Valley, assists parole agents in the community as well as other local law enforcement agencies.
To keep drugs from entering the prison, one of CSP-Solano’s dogs is routinely posted near the prison entrance on visiting days. On those days, it’s not uncommon to see visitors driving into the parking lot, spot the dog, and immediately turn their cars around and leave without stopping.
Oso, the black Labrador retriever that works at Salinas Valley, has a particularly rewarding job, if only because Correctional Officer Rogelio Garcia, a member of the prison’s Investigative Services Unit, gives him a piece of beef hotdog whenever he alerts.
During a cell search last fall, Oso (“bear” in Spanish) alerted on a stack of three manila envelopes. When Garcia separated the envelopes, the dog alerted on the middle envelope in the which, which contained only marijuana residue, still enough to justify a full search.
“He surprises me all the time,” says Garcia.
During a house search conducted with the Soledad Police Department in April, Oso alerted at the edge of a driveway, leading officers to dig up several plastic bags containing more than a pound of methamphetamine. Last year, Oso led police offices to a kilogram of cocaine worth $25,000 to $35,000.
Major, Nando, Oso and Britney, a Belgian Malinois working at CTF, are trained to give “active” or “aggressive” alerts by scratching or digging. Nikko, the yellow Labrador retriever handled by CTF Correctional Officer Ace Acevedo, Jr., gives a “passive” alert by sitting down.
“He snaps his head in the direction of where he wants you to look,” Acevedo explains.
As a reward, Acevedo throws a big rubber pull toy for Nikko to play with.
“It has to be fun,” Acevedo says. “Otherwise, his attention is lost.”
The department’s five drug dogs are specially bred and trained for the job. CTF purchased Oso from a Santa Cruz first operated by a retired K-9 officer. Major and Nando were born in Europe, purchased in Riverside, and trained by a former military officer who used to be CSP-Solano’s K-9 officer.
The department’s K-9 officers initially received four to six weeks of training from a master trainer and must be re-certified each year.
They also train with their dogs several times a month, sometimes alongside K-9 officers from other nearby law enforcement agencies.
The officers clearly see their dogs as more than four-legged coworkers. When Major is ready to retire, Whitfield intends to buy him from the prison as a pet.
“He’s too nice a dog to be working in a prison,” Garcia says of Oso, who was recently featured as pet of the week by the local Soledad newspaper. “I’m just the chauffer,” he jokes. “He’s the star, not me.”