SPECIAL REPORT: Dogs trained to sniff out cell phones - Tucson News Now

SPECIAL REPORT: Dogs trained to sniff out cell phones

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They're illegal contraband just like drugs and weapons, but more and more inmates are smuggling cell phones into prison.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections says a monthly sweep in cells around Arizona turns up anywhere from 30 to 60 cell phones.

The trend is alarming because prisoners can make unmonitored calls, post messages on social media sites, even send text messages to unassuming victims.

The Department of Corrections is fighting the problem in a unique but very effective way.

In 2010, 165 phones were confiscated. The following year that number almost doubled -- 283 cell phones were discovered in Arizona prisons.

So far this year, 239 phones have already been seized.

Nestled in the mountains of Tucson is a training academy for some of the toughest 4-legged officers in the state.

"We're training dual purpose dogs and single purpose dogs, detection and patrol," says Kenny Vance, service dog support specialist.

On this day, Vance is teaching obedience. German shepherds, hound dogs, Belgium malamutes walk in formation with their trainers, falling into line.

An unlikely pair, a Springer spaniel and a pit bull, just two of the prison system's nine canines, will serve a very special purpose.

"We identified hunting breed dogs that liked the extreme hunt, an extreme retrieve drive and wanted to work all day," says Ralph Pendergast, DOC service dog administrator.

Pendergast says the 9 dogs spend 9 weeks -- 320 hours -- learning how to detect cell phones.

"Over the last four years smuggling cell phones into the prison is almost like the plague. Its a device that can be used by inmates to continue on with their drug practices, ordering dope in, planning escapes, intimidating witnesses that might be involved in the court system, and continuing on with, if they belong to a gang, do gang business inside the prison."

According to Pendergast, phones that can be bought for as little as $40 on the outside go for as much as $800-1,200 on the inside. They're smuggled in by friends and family during visits, by staff, even purchased during work detail.

Zip, Taz and Cricket have one job. To find the contraband. Their paycheck? A favorite toy.

"We're working with instincts that are inherent with the dogs' abilities. We call them drives," says Lt. Steve Lowe.

The dogs Lt. Steve Lowe trains to sniff out cell phones are energetic. They were saved from shelters in Tucson, Phoenix, even Pinal County and given a new leash on life.

"You have to kind of remember the dog's nose is 44 times better than a human's nose."

The dogs are taught to locate and alert DOC officers to four distinct chemicals found in cell phones -- ferric chloride, used to etch circuit board, rosin, promotes soldering, epoxy, used to fabricate the printed circuit board and lithium ion, gas from the battery.

Inside a typical training kit for cell phone dogs is a jar with the pieces of 10 dismantled cell phones. The lid of the jar is ventilated and placed back inside of the box so all of the contents in the box including a towel to absorb the odor of the cell phone.

The dogs will start their training by searching for the towel before they start searching for an actual cell phone. We decided to put this to the test -- we didn't tell the handler or the trainers where we were going to hide the towel -- we put it under a pillow which is a typical place inmates would hide a cell phone.

"I've been in K-9 for almost 39 years. I was not a believer that our dogs could find cell phones," says Pendergast.

Pendergast initiated the program in 2008. He started with two dogs and says the program will continue to grow as the need for these cell phone sniffing dogs does.

One dog is stationed in every Arizona state prison, except the Phoenix facility, which is much smaller than the others. They're available 24-7, always ready to work.

Pendergast says the prison system in London, England started the program in 2007.

The state of Virginia was the first in the U.S. to employ dogs, followed by Arizona.

Pendergast currently has instructed corrections departments from several states on how to train cell phone sniffing dogs.

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