Virginia lawmakers to sharply limit "alarming" number of patrol dog attacks on state prisoners

  • In a sweeping bipartisan vote, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill to curb the use of dogs to attack state prisoners

  • The bill came after Business Insider revealed dogs attacked 271 Virginia prisoners in a recent years, more than any other state

  • Common uses of the dogs, such as in cell extractions, would now be banned.

Legislation to severely restrict the use of attack-trained patrol dogs in Virginia state prisons has passed the state legislature, receiving overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and passing unanimously in the Senate.

House Delegates Holly Seibold, a Democrat, and Michael Webert, a Republican, took action after a Business Insider investigation revealed Virginia prisons deploy attack-trained dogs at an unmatched scale. Patrol dogs have been used to attack or intimidate prisoners in eight states in recent years. Dogs attacked 271 incarcerated people in Virginia between 2017 and 2022. Arizona, the state with the second highest number of incidents in that time period, had 15 dog attacks.

The bill would severely restrict the deployment of patrol dogs to attack incarcerated people in Virginia, prohibiting their use except when "immediately necessary" to protect prisoners or staff from the "threat of serious bodily injury or death." Deploying the dogs to intervene in a fight would now require the involvement of at least three prisoners and permission from a warden or other supervisor.

The new law could dramatically impact the use of patrol dogs at six high-security prisons where, according to incident reports obtained by BI, patrol dogs have been regularly used to attack men who refuse to leave their cells or who are involved in one-on-one altercations.

BI was able to obtain details of 149 dog attacks in Virginia prisons in recent years, through incident reports turned over in a legal settlement with the Virginia Department of Corrections. A review of those incident reports shows that a vast majority of the deployments would have been barred under the standards laid out in the new bill. At least 118 of the attacks occurred when officers intervened in one-on-one fights between prisoners or when a prisoner refused direct orders from staff to leave his cell or otherwise comply. The new legislation would make deploying a patrol dog in these circumstances illegal, except when immediately necessary to protect prisoners or staff from serious injury or death.

Bites from patrol dogs are severe, sometimes permanently disabling or disfiguring. At least 18 men incarcerated in Virginia required emergency hospital care for crush injuries, muscle and tissue damage, or septic infections resulting from dog attacks since 2017. Dozens of others suffered from psychological trauma for months or years after they were attacked.

"Obviously all bites are bad," Marcus Elam, corrections operations administrator and legislative liaison for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said at a January legislative hearing. But Elam told the committee that the department primarily uses patrol dogs for prison security and deterrence — in other words, that the threat of their teeth and snarls is sufficient to produce compliance. Out of 774 incidents where the dogs were deployed in 2023, Elam said, 34 incidents resulted in bites.

When pressed by lawmakers on BI's findings that Virginia deployed patrol dogs 18 times more often than any other state, Elam said that the number of bites in Virginia was "alarming."

"I will acknowledge that we can always get better and any bite that is inappropriate that has taken place when it shouldn't is a bad thing," Elam said. "Our goal at the department is looking at what our practices are in any area and find out where we've made mistakes and find out what we can do better."

Kyle Gibson, a Virginia Department of Corrections spokesperson, told BI that the department "does not routinely comment on proposed or pending legislation."

The new legislation regulating patrol dogs in Virginia prisons passed the House on February 8 82-15 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill then passed unanimously in the Senate on February 20.

"When we see problems, we solve them, and not with overreactions or simple, quick fixes," Delegate Webert told BI in a statement. "In this case, we were able to do just that, and in the end, we have a new law that will make our corrections system safer."

"I was thrilled to see HB 159 pass the Senate on a unanimous, bipartisan vote," Delegate Seibold told BI. "We need an urgent intervention to address this Virginia-specific problem, and I was pleased to see my General Assembly colleagues agree to tackle this important issue this year. I am hopeful that the Governor will sign the bill and I look forward to working with the administration and the Department of Corrections to protect the health and safety of everyone in our correctional facilities."

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has seven days to sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to the legislature. If he does nothing, the bill becomes law.

"The governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk," Christian Martinez, a spokesperson for the governor, told BI.

Read the original article on Business Insider