Things We Didn’t Know Needed to be Banned: Using Attack Dogs on Incarcerated People

The Oregon Senate passed legislation banning the use of attack dogs on incarcerated individuals last week.

Vaidya Gullapalli

 This article was published as part of the March 25 Daily Appeal .

In the year 2019, you would hope that a law saying that an attack dog cannot be let loose on a person to bite him and drag him from a jail cell would be unnecessary. Yet last week Oregon’s Senate passed such legislation (Senate Bill 495), prompted by the 2017 mauling of a man with mental illness. Oregon is reportedly one of six states that permit the use of attack dogs in cell extractions. Assuming the House passes the bill as well and the governor signs it into law, there will be five other states that still allow this.

Thirteen years ago, Human Rights Watch published a report on the practice in U.S. prisons. “One of the iconic pictures from Abu Ghraib,” the report noted, “shows an unmuzzled German Shepherd straining at his leash a few inches in front of a detainee, who is crouched in terror.” Two Army sergeants were convicted in court-martials of using their dogs to harass, threaten, and assault detained people. But at the time the Human Rights Watch report came out, in 2006, the “use of large unmuzzled dogs to terrify and even attack” people in prison into complying with instructions was lawful in the prison systems of five U.S. states: Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, South Dakota, and Utah.

Cell extractions—the forcible removal of people from their cells—are violent and dangerous even without the use of canines. Human Rights Watch described how attack dogs are used in the process: “The dog’s barking and presence outside the prisoner’s cell is intended to terrify and intimidate the prisoner into compliance with the order to ‘cuff up.’ If the prisoner continues to resist, he knows the dog will be loosed on him. Some prisoners will wrap blankets, towels, and even toilet paper around their limbs to try to protect themselves from dog bites. When the guards open the cell door, the leashed dog enters the cell first. The dog handler is supposed to maintain his hold on the dog’s leash while it attacks the prisoner. But this is not always the case.”

A Utah corrections officer defended the practice: “Obviously a dog is more of a deterrent [than a Taser gun]. You get more damage from a dog bite. I think it’s right up there with impact weapons…” The dogs used were—and perhaps still are—typically German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, dogs that weigh over 60 pounds and stand over two feet tall. The use of an attack dog in a cell extraction makes injury to the person who is the target of the cell extraction all but inevitable.

“The dog is trained to bite whatever part of the prisoner it can grasp first,” said the report. “According to an Iowa corrections official, ‘[The dogs are] taught a deep—a full-mouth bite. The dog opens his mouth real wide and gets as much as [he can] whether it’s a thigh or whatever in his mouth.’”

The U.S. stood alone, the report said, in the use of dogs to attack people who would not voluntarily leave their cells. Although South Dakota reported never using dogs for cell extractions, and the practice was long-abandoned or rare in Delaware and Utah, it was frequent in Connecticut and Iowa. Yet more than two dozen correctional officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers said they “had no idea dogs were authorized, much less ever used, for this purpose. Many were, as one said, ‘flabbergasted.’”

Representatives for the state corrections systems that did use attack dogs told Human Rights Watch that they were never used for cell extractions of people with mental illness. The idea, they said, was that being bitten by the dog would force a person out of a cell, to avoid being bitten further, but a person with mental illness could react in a way that would lead to the dog becoming more aggressive.

This is exactly what happened to Christopher Bartlett at the Columbia County jail in Oregon in 2017. Last year, Disability Rights Oregon, with Bartlett’s permission, published its findings on his case and the county jail’s use of attack dogs to intimidate and control incarcerated people. The report noted that 40 percent of people in jail have a history of mental illness, and it called for legislation “that prohibits the use of canines in correctional facilities for the purpose of intimidation or control.” Bartlett was arrested on charges of vandalism, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. During his booking process at the jail, his responses (including saying he was related to Jesus Christ) raised enough concern that he was placed in a “safety cell” to prevent him from harming himself. Two weeks later, jail deputies decided to move him because of “his behavior.” After what the county claims was a few hours of de-escalation techniques, they brought in the dog. Disability Rights Oregon reports that when deputies arrived at Bartlett’s cell with the dog and ordered him out, he went to his bed and lay down. In response, the officers released the dog into Bartlett’s cell. He was bitten on the hip and the chest and his arm. While he screamed in pain, the deputies cuffed him.

In the interviews that Human Rights Watch researchers did a decade before the attack on Bartlett, they probed the horror felt by officials who opposed using attack dogs to force people out of cells. These were officials who, presumably, condoned other uses of force.“Implicit—and sometimes explicit—in many of the statements to us was the notion that dogs are different; they cannot simply be considered as another way of exercising force over a prisoner; that there is something inherently troubling about the use of a trained attack dog to bite prisoners, regardless of the necessity for the cell extraction.”  One expert on the use of force explained his aversion to using dogs: “This is about who we are, what we are about.”