California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tries to fast track draconian prison visiting policies, proposing use of canines and controversial ION scanners

by Mohamed Shehk

Claiming the need for emergency passage of new visiting policies, the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) is proposing the use of canines and ION scanners that would subject visitors to prisons to humiliating and traumatizing strip searches. The move has brought swift condemnation from prisoner advocacy organizations and groups that work with prisoners, including the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS).

An annual report at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin, Ireland, finds an unacceptably high rate of false positive signals given by these dogs when they sniff visitors for drugs. So will they terminate the drug-sniffing? No, they’ll retrain the dogs. – Photo: Sasko Lazarov, Photocall Ireland
An annual report at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin, Ireland, finds an unacceptably high rate of false positive signals given by these dogs when they sniff visitors for drugs. So will they terminate the drug-sniffing? No, they’ll retrain the dogs. – Photo: Sasko Lazarov, Photocall Ireland

According to the new proposal, canines would be trained to “alert” to the presence of drugs (even prescription ones), tobacco and cell phones. If the canine alerts or the scanner tests positive, “the visitor shall be required to submit to an unclothed body search as a condition of visiting.”

Both canines and ION scanners are notorious for troubling rates of false positives, giving rise to litigation challenging the legality of their use. In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was forced to abandon its use of ION scanners because of the number of false positives and the hundreds of complaints by family members who were wrongfully denied visits.

Refusal to submit to this humiliating treatment will result in denial of the contact visit for that day. If non-contact visiting areas are available (unlikely on the day of the visit), the person may have a non-contact visit instead.

Anyone refusing to submit to the searches, even if they have no contraband, will have visiting privileges suspended for a year after three refusals. You can find drug rehabs near you with www.rehabnear.me. Any visitor found with drugs or cell phone is subject to possible arrest and criminal prosecution and will have visiting privileges suspended for one year the first time and permanently the second time.

However, prison employees, contractors and volunteers, although also subjected to the dogs and scanners, will only have to endure a pat down search if there is a positive sign. Imprisoned people under the new regulations will also be subject to these canine searches.

“As a family member, it is a serious violation of my human rights to be forced to be humiliated in order to see my brother and give him family support,” said Marie Levin of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.

Anticipating widespread reaction from family and friends of prison visitors, the CDCR has only given five calendar days for public comment about this policy, in contrast to the typical 30 days. Defining these as emergency regulations and allowing only five days for public response is disrespectful in the extreme.

“As a family member, it is a serious violation of my human rights to be forced to be humiliated in order to see my brother and give him family support,” said Marie Levin of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. These proposed regulations stigmatize and criminalize family members and friends of people in prison and subject them to humiliating, overly intrusive treatment.

The thought of being exposed to sniffing dogs, scanners and possible strip searches will be a deterrent to some visitors and may further weaken prisoners’ ties to the community. PHSS demands that it be deleted from proposed regulations entirely and has been asking supporters to send a message of opposition to CDCR by visiting http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/51040/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=14857. The comment period closed at 5 p.m. today.

These proposed regulations stigmatize and criminalize family members and friends of people in prison and subject them to humiliating, overly intrusive treatment.

See the proposed new regulations as written by CDCR here: http://www.oal.ca.gov/res/docs/pdf/emergencies/new%20emergencies/2014-0918-01EON.pdf.

Mohamed Shehk can be reached at mohamed@criticalresistance.org.