9 Investigates: Department Of Corrections War On Contraband

Wednesday, February 10th 2016, 11:00 pm
By: News 9

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has been testing a new weapon in what officials say is a never-ending battle to keep prisoners from possessing things that they shouldn't.

Contraband is a very serious problem, and one specific contraband item is the target of DOC's new offensive -- an offensive mounted on four legs and led by an ultra-sensitive nose.

The department's K-9 program is growing in stature and 9 Investigates was recently given an exclusive demonstration of its capabilities through the efforts of a rescue dog named Riley.

"Anytime we get a new method of combatting this," said Warden Jim Farris, "it's always exciting."

Farris is the warden at the Lexington Assessment & Reception Center, a prison that houses minimum and medium security inmates. He understands only too well the importance of detecting and eliminating contraband.

"Contraband, to put it lightly, is a huge problem," said Farris.

DOC policy requires each prison to maintain a log of contraband items taken from inmates, from their cells, or found anywhere on prison grounds. Through an Open Records request, 9 Investigates received copies of one year's worth of logs from the department's 17 state-run prisons.

There are thousands of entries, including items such as sharpened objects, pokers, tattoo rigs, TV's, radios, syringes, marijuana, tobacco, fans, and much more.

Contraband Logs

But by far the most common contraband item, and the one that DOC officials say poses the greatest danger, is the one Riley has been trained to sniff out -- a cell phone.

In the demonstration, in a mock living area, Riley seemed to have little difficulty locating a variety of cell phones.

"We had six cell phones planted, and the dog successfully detected all six of them," said Lance Hetmer, a special assistant to the director, "and I don't know if you saw the size of some of those phones, but they're pretty small."

Hetmer runs DOC's K-9 program. He says Riley and their other cell phone dog detect mobile phones the same way narcotics dogs find drugs -- smell.

"Although you or I can't smell it," Hetmer explains, "cell phones have a particular odor that are specific to cell phones."

DOC has been using drug dogs for close to two decades. Those dogs are a routine part of the department's efforts to control the flow of drugs into and within its facilities, just as the cell phones soon will be.

Prison officials say, if they could magically be rid of one contraband item, it wouldn't be narcotics and it wouldn't be weapons -- it would be cell phones.

"They can keep track of our moves with cell phones," said Warden Farris. "[A cell phone] opens up every door to every piece of contraband; every problem that you could possibly have can be linked to a cell phone."

The contraband logs are filled with reports of cell phones. DOC officials say they confiscated 7,706 of them in 2015. They hope the deployment of the new cell phone dogs will help bring that number down.

While the dogs in DOC's narcotics detection program are pure-breeds, the plan is to use all rescues for the cell phone program.

Three families tried to adopt Riley before DOC rescued him.

"The things that make him unadoptable for the average family make him perfect for us," said Hetmer, "because he's high-strung, he's a working dog and he needs a job."

It's a big job, and one that is expected to save the department time and money

"We can go through and search an inmate living area in minutes," Hetmer noted, "when it would take a dozen staff hours to go through."

The goal, Hetmer says, is, ultimately, to train enough cell phone dogs that they can be at all prisons and be used to screen visitors and search cells. As the program is launched, the two dogs will be used for targeted searches.