Some inmates' rights groups are hoping the highest court in Massachusetts will block a policy in which prison visitors are subjected to a search by drug-sniffing dogs before entering state-run facilities, but Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson doesn't think the policy should or will change anytime soon.

The Supreme Judicial Court will consider this month whether or not the Department of Corrections overstepped its authority when it began using the dog searches in 2013, without first holding a public hearing on the matter.

In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts sued the DOC for not going through a regulatory process before implementing the policy.

"A lower court already ruled the DOC was within its rights to do it," Sheriff Hodgson said. "The question the SJC is looking at is whether there should have been a public hearing ahead of time. If that's the only issue, hold a public hearing if that's really required, and then move on with it. I can't imagine the SJC would come down against the policy, that any court would rule against us doing our job."

Advocates for the prisoners and their families say the dog searches are demeaning, and could discourage family members from visiting their loved ones while they are incarcerated. Sheriff Hodgson said there is nothing demeaning about the process of the search.

"When people are waiting in line in the visiting area, the dog simply walks down the line," Hodgson said. "If the dog detects any kind of drug, the dog will sit. It's not any kind of attack dog. They're docile dogs that are just trained to sit when they detect drugs."

The sheriff said the previous screening techniques were far more intrusive on visitors, asking them to open their mouths so guards could inspect inside of them, including under their tongues, for possible contraband.

"I couldn't help but see one of the quotes by one of these prisoners advocate groups saying (visitors) aren't people who are convicted, and people don't want to be treated as suspects," he said. "I don't think anyone in America wants to be treated like a terrorist, either, but you still have to go through screening at airports. That's just part of what we have to do in today's world."

Hodgson said prior to using the drug-sniffing dogs, some family members would even resort to putting drugs inside their babies' diapers in order to smuggle them into the prison.

"This is a serious situation we face in our prisons. Aout 80 percent of people in our prisions have drug-related issues, so it stands to reason they're going to do everything they can to try to get drugs through here," he said. "We would be falling short of protecting the inmate population here, and our staff, if we did not use every tool available, including these drug-sniffing dogs."

The sheriff pointed to a recent incident where an officer was searching a cell, and suspected an inmate was hiding something underneath himself while laying on the bed. Once the inmate was told to stand up, the officer shook the blanket, and the drugs blew up into his face, requiring two doses of Narcan to reverse the effects.

"With the opioid crisis we have going on, people are lacing drugs with fentanyl and carfentanyl," Hodgson said. "One grain of which, if you come into contact with it, it can kill you. So it's a security issue not only for the inmates, who we are charged to care for and protect, but also for our staff."

Hodgson also said many more people are understanding of the drug-sniffing dogs than upset by them.

"The people who don't get pulled out of line are people who have loved ones inside of prisons and don't want them exposed to drugs," he said. "We don't want them to end up dying in prison because we didn't do our jobs."

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