January/February - 1997
Vol# 13 - Issue# 1
Sending Dogs to Jail
-Anthony Baker and Ricard Seguine
Not as a return to the medieval practice of trying and punishing animals for "criminal" acts, but in a teaming of human and canine talents for the protection of lives and property, dogs are going to Britain's prisons. Following some high-profile escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst Prison in 1994 and 1995, two inquiries were set up under Sir John Woodcock and General Sir John Learmont. Arising from their recommendations, a special tactical unit, the National Dog Support Group (NDSG), was set up in 1996. The first priority of NDSG is to conduct searches for firearms and explosives, but additional tasks include narcotic searches, pre-occupation searches of new and refurbished buildings, and providing support for crowd and riot control. So far, NDSG has achieved outstanding results.
Concept of Operation
NDSG is an independent national unit within the Prison Service Security Group. Each of its eighteen members is a prison officer, holds the status of a constable, has at least ten years' experience as a dog handler, and works with a Drug/Patrol dog. The standard work vehicle is a Ford Escort van that is specially fitted with ventilated kennels and radio and mobile telephone equipment capable of communicating anywhere in the UK. Members are "on call" twenty-four hours a day and the unit's technical support equipment, described below, is also available at all times. NDSG responds whenever summoned by an on-site incident commander, anywhere in the UK within two hours. When members arrive at a work site, they operate under the incident commander's direction. If a suspected explosive device is found, NDSG does not attempt to render it "safe" as this is the responsibility of other units.
Technical Support Equipment
A unique feature of NDSG is quick access to an outstanding assemblage of practical tools and equipment. These include, for example, EGIS (a mobile explosives identification unit), second generation night vision, mobile power generators, ground search metal detectors, mobile radio base station and forty radios, fire brigade breathing apparatus, gas detectors, safety hoists and harness for lowering dogs and handlers into basements, portable flood lights, evidence collection kits, inflatable operation shelter, photographic kits, live time portable X-ray machine, and a global positioning system capable of pinpointing their location within one meter anywhere in the world. It is impressive that NDSG members have been able to master the use and maintenance of all of this equipment in addition to sustaining their dog handling skills.
NDSG responds to about thirty calls per month, ranging from a full search of a prison to requests to assist local dog units. In addition to work within the prison system, it occasionally supports other government agencies including VIP security work and bomb searches for the police. If other duties permit, NDSG is available to perform searches for private agencies for a fixed contract fee.
One of NDSG's first obstacles has been to work around the inevitable "hot shot/elite" label that it has carried from its conception. Hence, to promote good working relations, NDSG tries to involve other prison system personnel whenever possible in its work, and to provide other units with service and help rather than usurp their function or detract from their recognition. This is, of course, a very difficult balance to achieve.
Staffing has been a challenge from the outset because of the high skill requirements and exhausting work demands of the unit. Fortunately, NDSG has had the advantage of recruiting from a very large talent pool-there are sixty applications on file for a potential vacancy in the unit. Thus, the unit has been able to obtain the services of former National Dog School trainers, six former National Arms/Explosives Assessors, and other exceptionally qualified people.
Training needs have also been a challenge from the outset. Building on a "dog man" background, each NDSG member is also trained in Dedicated Search Techniques, Drug and Firearms/Explosives Awareness, Bomb Threat Management, Confined Spaces Search, Ladders and High Work, and Forensic Evidence Protection. Three Members are trained Search Coordinators, six are Hostage Negotiators, six are First Aid Staff, two are Breathing Apparatus Instructors, and two are electrical advisors. All of this training must be integrated with a heavy duty schedule, and it must be updated regularly.
The authors were treated to a demonstration of NDSG's tactics at an abandoned mental facility in Kent County on 19 September 1996 as guests of John Barton, Head of Operations at Gartree Prison. The most commonly used dogs were German Shepherds, but we also saw a Labrador Retriever and two cute, enthusiastic Springer Spaniels. Some of the tactics demonstrated – for example, a two-officer, two-dog extraction of a resisting prisoner from a cell – were specially designed for a prison setting; most, however, were adaptable to other settings as well. The dogs' training starts early, at about six months. The dog handlers were obviously competent, and they seemed to work very well together. NDSG recently demonstrated their skills and equipment to Ann Widdecomb, Minister for Prisons. The unit appears to have good support from superiors in the Prison System and Home Office-a critical factor in the unit's long-term success. This is a special unit, and it is doing special work to help protect lives and prison security. NDSG adds another chapter to the long story on man's mutually rewarding relationship with dogs. It supports the proposition that a dog can indeed be your "best friend"-unless , of course, your intent is to "raise hell" in a British prison!