Two men allegedly injured by prison security dogs — one of whom was partially disabled — have filed civil rights suits accusing the Virginia Department of Corrections of the systemic, brutal use of canines on prisoners.
Use of Attack Dogs in Virginia State Prisons
February 15, 2021
Note: This litigation is due to the correspondence that IAHR has conducted over the last 5 years with inmates in maximum security prisons in the State of Virginia. IAHR was able to bring these allegations of the use of attack dogs to our pro bono attorneys who have filed law suits on behalf of two of the victims who were attacked by dogs.
Curtis J. Garrett, 29, a former inmate, says he was attacked by dogs in 2018 at the Sussex II State Prison, leading to permanent physical injuries and a mental breakdown requiring psychiatric hospitalization. Corey E. Johnson, 51, an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, was allegedly mauled by a dog there last May.
Both inmates contend they were obeying orders and not resisting corrections officers when attacked by the dogs, according to the suits filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond and Roanoke.
"Although the use of canines in a force capacity is widely recognized as an extreme and brutal measure, the official policies, practices, and customs of the Virginia Department of Corrections ... continue to allow the use of unmuzzled canines to terrify and attack prisoners," the suits allege.
The plaintiffs allege violations of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and name various Department of Corrections employees and officials as defendants.
They are seeking unspecified damages and a court-ordered end to prison policies that are said to "permit, condone, and ratify canine attacks on prisoners."
The Virginia Department of Corrections declined to comment on either lawsuit.
The DOC's partially redacted canine policy states: "The mission of the DOC Canine Program is to enhance public safety by utilizing canines as a manpower multiplier; to assist in the detection of narcotics, cellphones, and tobacco; to assist in control of offenders; and to assist in apprehension of escaping/absconding offenders."
Kelly Jo Popkin, a lawyer helping represent both men, said that the department has engaged in misconduct with dogs for years.
"The use of canines to attack prisoners in VDOC facilities is systemic and has led to severe physical and psychological injuries in prisons. Among the many ways, VDOC officers deploy canines against prisoners during cell extractions, which involve the forcible removal of prisoners from his or her cell," according to the suit.
The plaintiffs contend that "the use of unmuzzled canines by prison officers as a means of forcing and intimidating a prisoner to voluntarily leave his cell has been widely recognized as an extreme, brutal, and unnecessary tactic."
Garrett's suit states that on Dec. 25, 2018 he was assaulted by another inmate at the Sussex II State Prison and retreated to his cell. When he saw two officers and their dogs approach, he turned around and presented his hands behind his back to be cuffed so he could be led from the cell, according to the suit.
According to the suit, "Mr. Garrett collapsed to the ground under the force of the Patrol Canine Unit’s attack."
He was unable to extend his left arm fully and suffered sharp, shooting pain throughout the left side of his body emanating from the canine wound, according to the suit.
"Mr. Garrett has recurring nightmares of the attack that often render him unable to sleep," the lawsuit says.
"He has severe panic attacks at the mere thought of dogs barking," the suit says. "And, sadly, [in November], Mr. Garrett was institutionalized at [a psychiatric hospital] for a mental breakdown caused by trauma associated with the canine attack and aftermath."
Popkin said this week that Garrett since returned home and that long-term care was being sought for him, "as he's still struggling a lot and not leaving his room."
Johnson suffered wounds in his right arm and hand requiring a trip to a hospital emergency room and 21 stitches. Johnson still suffers injuries from the attack including nerve damage in his right arm, the suit alleges.
The dog handler involved later alleged that Johnson approached another officer in a threatening manner justifying the release of the dog. Johnson denies threatening the officer, whom he said he never saw during the incident.