One of the two plaintiffs says he laid down on the ground in surrender, but was mauled nonetheless.
Two recently filed lawsuits claim that the Virginia Department of Corrections uses unmuzzled dogs to attack and intimidate inmates inside the state’s maximums security prisons.
The Washington Post recounts, in part, the experience of Curtis Garrett.
On Christmas Day 2020, Garrett was just four months shy of his release from the Sussex I State Prison.
Following an altercation with another inmate—Garrett says he’d been attacked with a makeshift weapon—Garrett retreated into his cell. Moments later, he spotted two Patrol Canine Unit officers approach with dogs.
When they arrived outside his cell, Garrett turned around and placed his hands behind his back, expecting to be handcuffed.
But instead of being restrained, Garrett says the Patrol Canine Unit officers, “without warning or provocation,” unleashed their dogs and ordered them to attack.
“The two canines bit Mr. Garrett’s left arm and right leg while the two Officers punched and kicked Mr. Garrett repeatedly,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Garrett collapsed to the ground under the force of the Patrol Canine Unit’s attack.”
The canine handlers then grabbed Garrett, hoisting him into the air even as the dogs kept biting.
“The canines sank their teeth deeper into Mr. Garrett’s arm and leg when he was pulled up into the air, causing them to hang in the air, still attached to Mr. Garrett by their teeth as he was lifted,” the suit says. “While the canines’ jaws clenched down on Mr. Garrett’s left arm and right leg, [the officers] slammed Mr. Garrett’s body against the wall of his cell. The Officers proceeded to cuff Mr. Garrett’s hands behind him.”
Both the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch observe that the unprovoked use of canine units is widely regarded as excessive.
In their lawsuits, Garrett and another prisoner claim they were clearly complaint when officers unleashed their dogs.
“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 lawsuits allege.
While the Virginia Department of Corrections insists that canine units are primarily used to detect drugs and other contraband, inmates have been complaining about attacks and intimidation for years.
The inmates, says the Times-Dispatch, are represented by Rights Behind Bar, as well as Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.
Kelly Jo Popkin, an attorney with Rights Behind Bars, maintains that her clients’ experiences are not all that unusual in Virginia’s prison system.
“Guards have often used attack canines to terrorize incarcerated people, mauling them and leaving them mentally and physically broken. This widespread practice is not only barbaric — an abject act of dehumanization — but illegal, and cannot be tolerated in a just society,” Popkin told the Times-Dispatch over email.
The other inmate named in litigation, Corey Johnson, was also subjected to a dog attack after getting into a fist fight.
While Johnson admits he’s never been a model inmate, he insists he wasn’t going to confront any of the prison staff who responded—and had, in fact, laid down on the ground after being hit with several gas canisters.
Nevertheless, Johnson too was bitten multiple times; his injuries culminated in a six-inch scar and permanent nerve damage.
“Unlike the uneven, surface-level, or zigzagging wounds a canine might leave on a person who continues an altercation in defiance of official orders, Mr. Johnson’s wounds were deep, clean, and had no jagged patterns because he had remained prostrate on the ground during the attack,” the lawsuit reads.
While the lawsuits request unspecified damages and a court-ordered end to prison dog attacks, Popkin believes the only way that the Virginia Department of Corrections’ misconduct can be stopped is through the state congress.
“Ultimately, Virginia lawmakers are the ones who need to recognize the use of canine attack dogs as a systemic concern and act accordingly to ban the practice of using attack dogs against prisoners,” Popkin told the Times-Dispatch. “There’s something about these stories that show how the use of dogs against prisoners is so degrading, and completely dehumanizing.”