FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – At her coming-out party on Tuesday in a prison parking lot, Razor the dog sniffed one wooden box, lunged at and jumped over a second, then smelled a third and promptly sat down next to it. It contained three cell phones, earning a scratch behind the ears and play time with a tennis ball.
Meet Razor, the first dog trained to find contraband cell phones in Florida's prisons.
She's still in training, but corrections officials put the 14-month-old Malinois through her paces Tuesday for reporters. When she joins the corrections department in mid to late November, Razor will help enforce a new law making cell phones in prisons illegal. The law went into effect Oct. 1. Previously, inmates who were caught with phones could lose privileges or lose time off their sentence they'd earned for good behavior.
Get caught with a phone now, and an inmate faces up to five more years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. The law also bans pagers, PDAs and handheld radios, but officials say the biggest problem is cell phones, which inmates have used to coordinate escape attempts, harass victims and arrange drug deals inside and outside of prison. In the past year, officials found approximately 340 cell phones in prisons in Florida, which has the third-largest state prison system in the nation.
To fight the problem, officials have tried jamming cell phone signals but that can create problems for users of legitimate cell phones in the area. Drug sweeps have also turned up phones because both are often hidden in crafty places, like the soles of shower shoes, in tape players, in soda cans and inside the layers of rolls of toilet paper. That's where Razor comes in.
"We're hoping to find ones that we otherwise wouldn't find," said Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger, who said Razor's $6,500 cost was paid for by the Animal Welfare Foundation of Winter Garden.
"Our inmates are very, very creative in where they hide their contraband. They hide it up high. They hide it in light fixtures, in ceilings, in pipe chases," said Kevin Dean, who oversees the Department of Corrections' K-9 units.
Razor's name is a riff on the name of the popular Motorola cell phone, the RAZR, but she isn't the only state with a cell-phone dog detective. Virginia uses cell-phone sniffing dogs, and Maryland began using cell-phone sniffing dogs this summer. Maryland's three dogs have since found 23 cell phones, said Maryland prison spokesman Mark Vernarelli. But the dogs also have a deterrent effect.
"Whenever we bring a dog onto a tier we hear toilets flushing, we hear inmates calling out 'cell phone dog on the tier,"' Vernarelli said, adding inmates sometimes throw phones out of their cells rather than be caught with them.
Because of the dogs' success, later this month Maryland will hold a three-day workshop for other states to demonstrate how they train their dogs, Vernarelli said.
Razor, meanwhile, still has another six weeks left of an eight-week training. During that time her trainers will hide cell phones in ever more difficult places.
But her practice run in the parking lot of the Broward Correctional Institution, a facility that holds approximately 750 women, was a success. Corrections officials say she'll be ready soon, all those hidden cell phones are calling.