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Racism Unleashed: Attack Dogs Maul, Bite & Terrorize Prisoners Across United States

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A shocking new investigation by Insider reveals patrol dogs in U.S. prisons have attacked at least 295 people since 2017, with Virginia setting dogs on prisoners more than any other state. These attacks can leave people with grievous physical and psychological scars, sometimes permanently disabling and disfiguring them. The report also finds ties between procedures in U.S. prisons and the abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, where soldiers used attack dogs to terrify Iraqi detainees along with other forms of torture and humiliation. For more, we speak with journalist Hannah Beckler, an investigations editor at Insider, and Xavia Goodwyn, who says prison guards hurled racial slurs at him during a dog attack at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison in 2015. “Everything just went mayhem,” Goodwyn recalls.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A warning to our listeners and viewers: Again, this next segment includes graphic details.

“Patrol dogs are terrorizing and mauling prisoners inside the United States.” That’s the headline to a shocking new investigation by Insider. The report reveals prison patrol dogs have attacked at least 295 U.S. prisoners since 2017. Many prisoners were attacked by dogs while facedown or in leg irons. Several men said officers shouted racial slurs as dogs bit into their flesh.

The Insider report is accompanied by videos of men who describe how they were attacked. This is Linwood Mathias. A patrol dog bit him at Red Onion State Prison in 2017 in Virginia.

LINWOOD MATHIAS: It was just an altercation that took place, you know, an incident that happened. So, when they ordered for everybody to get on the ground, everybody complied. Then the dogs come in the pod, and I’m the only one that got attacked by the dog. I was already sedated. I was nonviolent. And I was in compliance with every direction that was given to me. And I still got bit. And the dog was on my leg for a long period of time, with my leg way up in the air, just chewing on it.

AMY GOODMAN: Linwood Mathias is featured in the new report by Hannah Beckler, investigations editor for Insider. On Wednesday, I spoke with Hannah, and we were joined by another man, Xavia Goodwyn, who was formerly incarcerated in Virginia, attacked by a dog also at Red Onion State Prison in 2015. I began by asking Hannah to lay out her findings and talk about the connection between the use of prison dogs in the U.S. prisons and at Abu Ghraib, the notorious U.S. military prison in Iraq where prisoners were tortured.

HANNAH BECKLER: Thanks so much for having me.

So, in Abu Ghraib, U.S. military dogs were introduced in November 2003, and their involvement in the abuse of detainees started almost immediately. Now, the roots of this program really originated in the United States, both at Guantánamo Bay and at state correctional systems. So, there were eight private contractors who were hired by the U.S. government to select the site, rebuild Abu Ghraib, train staff and generally advise the Iraqi correctional system. All eight of these men were former high-level prison administrators in state systems, and all eight men of these men were responsible for launching, administering or expanding programs in the U.S. that used attack-trained dogs in the ’80s and ’90s to attack or terrify people who were incarcerated.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who these corrections — if you could even refer to it as — commissioners are. I mean, these were the top guys from Utah, from Arizona, from Connecticut, from — well, tell us.

HANNAH BECKLER: Sure. So, they were correctional, as you said, commissioners or directors from Arizona, Utah, Connecticut and Massachusetts. One of the major figures was Lane McCotter. He started the patrol dog program first in New Mexico in 1988 and then moved on to administer a similar program in Utah. Gary DeLand was also the director of the Utah state system. He started a special operations team in Utah in the late ’80s that used attack-trained dogs for cell extractions, which is the forcible removal of a man in their cell by sending an attack-trained dog into the cell to attack them.

AMY GOODMAN: And to be clear, all of these men who ran these prison systems were forced out by lawsuits or political controversy, like women who were raped in the prisons or a person who died as a result of torture there.

HANNAH BECKLER: Yes. In fact, there was a 2005 Office of the Investigative General report that scrutinized the background of these private contractors because of these human rights abuses that followed them from the '80s and ’90s, before they were ever sent to Iraq to administer these programs in Abu Ghraib. So it's fairly shocking that the U.S. federal government even contracted these men.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what happened back in the United States, because your report goes right through to now.

HANNAH BECKLER: Yes. So, many of these programs, Utah discontinued it, but Connecticut, Massachusetts, Arizona, among five other states now, continue to use attack-trained dogs either as a show force — so, what this means is that they are using the dogs to bark, to growl, to terrify people who are incarcerated into compliance — or to attack them. So, in Virginia, for example — it’s the extreme outlier — 271 men have been attacked by these patrol dogs since 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: So, give us examples of what happened in prisons and the use of these patrol dogs to terrorize.

HANNAH BECKLER: So, in Virginia specifically, the dogs are deployed almost as a routine use of force. So, what this means is they might be used when there is a fight that happens in one of these prisons, and the dogs are called into the cell block to bark, to terrify and then to attack the men who are involved in those altercations. In other instances, they’re involved in what’s called a planned use of force, so, again, a cell extraction. So, I have records of many men who were refusing to leave their cells, and the correction officer sent one or sometimes even two dogs into the cell to attack the men, where they had nowhere to run.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happens afterwards.

HANNAH BECKLER: These attacks are severe. As you said, they’re sometimes permanently disfiguring and disabling. At least 18 men I identified had to be hospitalized for the sheer force and brutality of these attacks. It’s puncture wounds. It’s crush injuries. Sometimes it results in septic infections, which is life-threatening.

But what I have been told many times from these men who are attacked is the psychological impact is also incredibly severe. Many experience panic attacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and other symptoms that are consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder months or even years after the attack. Even those folks who witness these attacks say that it’s devastating. They also suffer nightmares afterwards. I spoke to corrections officers who similarly say that witnessing the blood, the screaming, the sheer sense of terror is primal, is what they told me, and incredibly traumatizing, something that they have to live with for, again, months and years afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the dogs [attacking] while the guard is spewing racial slurs at the prisoner? And then talk about the history of the use of attack dogs in racial attacks.

HANNAH BECKLER: I spoke to several historians who told me that the use of dogs as a — a weaponization of dogs has a long and racist history in the United States, whether these dogs were being deployed against Indigenous people for acts of genocide, whether they were employed on plantations to brutally enforce slavery, all the way through to 1963 Birmingham, for example, with those iconic photographs of German shepherds being sicced against teenagers.

Now we’re seeing them deployed in a prison environment, and the same sort of racist connotations are happening. I spoke to several men, at least seven, who allege, either in court filings or in interviews with me, that they were subjected to racist abuse, racist slurs, threats, either during or immediately after their attacks. This could be, you know, again, racial epithets, but it also can be threats, such as “My dog loves dark meat.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Hannah Beckler, who just did this chilling investigation for Insider called “Patrol dogs are terrorizing and mauling prisoners inside the United States.”

We’re also joined by Xavia Goodwyn, featured in this new Insider investigation. He filed a civil complaint that a corrections officer at the Red Onion Virginia State Prison held him down and repeatedly called him the N-word as a dog was attacking him in December of 2015. Xavia, I am so horrified that this happened to you. Thank you very much for joining us from Richmond. Can you lay out what happened to you?

XAVIA GOODWYN: That morning, there was an altercation in the pod. As to where, I came out of my cell, and I busted another inmate in the head. And it just went up between the inmates. When the staff was called, they came in. And they just came in hot. And I get it that I was like one of the last that was on my feet, but at the time when he engaged his K-9, I was in a prone position. I was compliant. That’s when the officer came in. He sprayed me while I was already down. When he sprayed me, everything just went mayhem. They was on me, twisting my legs and my arms behind my back, putting handcuffs and shackles on me. While I was down, he picked the K-9 up and placed him on my back. And after that, then they was taking me out of the vestibule. And I felt the momentum, like, pick up as they walked me, because there’s one on each side. And he rammed my head into the steel frame of the door and held my head up against the door.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the dog, you said, he — the dog came at you. And what did he do to your right leg?

XAVIA GOODWYN: He bit it. He bit it, several times. I mean, the mark’s still there. I wore shorts to prove it.

AMY GOODMAN: And when did he stop? When did they pull the dog away?

XAVIA GOODWYN: You know, this is the second time he engaged the dog on me. This time, I was already handcuffed and shackled when he put it on my right leg. He probably held on for maybe 10 seconds, something like that, about 10 seconds. He had me for about 10 seconds. But he bit me twice in 10 seconds.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, did you say at the beginning that they put a dog on your back?

XAVIA GOODWYN: Yes, ma’am, they placed him on my back. You could see it in the video. It’s in the video that they played in court.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you were laying down on your stomach, they put the dog on your back.

XAVIA GOODWYN: He lifted him up and placed him on my back, literally lifted him up, like grabbed him under his belly and pit him on my back, like, basically, like telling him what to do, making him do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the dog do?

XAVIA GOODWYN: He didn’t bite me, but he snipped at my face. He snipped at my face. But I think with seeing my face was — he had already sprayed me. Being that the CO had already sprayed me, I guess the dog wasn’t going around it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mean like pepper-sprayed or maced you?

XAVIA GOODWYN: Yeah, pepper spray. Yeah, pepper spray. It was pepper spray.

AMY GOODMAN: It was even too much for the dog.

XAVIA GOODWYN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was the beginning, them putting the dog on your back. And then they took you, slammed you against the bars. Your head is against the bars. And was it the same dog they brought up who then bit your right leg?

XAVIA GOODWYN: That part is unclear. That part is unclear. They never gave me the video from the vestibule. And they edited the handheld camera. So, right when the camera started rolling is when we’re in the vestibule.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavia, you tried to sue?

XAVIA GOODWYN: Absolutely. Absolutely. My case was — I appealed, too. My case, it was — he ruled in favor of the defendants. The thing they don’t understand is that during trial, I repeatedly made sure I got things on transcript that they were saying. So, I asked — so, when the judge was talking … and he said, “Mr. Goodwyn, there’s no doubt in my mind that they violated policy.” He said, “I’m trying to see if they violated your constitutional rights, as well.” But the Virginia Department of Corrections policies is governed by your constitutional rights. So, if they violate one, they violate both.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were upset that the Virginia attorney general didn’t defend you, but defended those who sicced the dog on you.

XAVIA GOODWYN: He’s an officer of the law, absolutely. I told him that in court. He’s an officer of the law. It’s on transcript. I told him that in court. I said, “Man, you’re an officer of the law, man. How are you going to defend what they did, when you see it?” It’s on tape. So, absolutely, I felt some type of way.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Beckler, when you heard Xavia’s description of what happened to him, can you fit this into the context of what you’ve heard from other prisoners? How typical is this horror?

HANNAH BECKLER: I think it’s very typical. Frankly, Xavia describes being compliant, being spread eagle on the floor. Many of the men I spoke with described that this as what they had done. They were flat on the ground, facedown, arms out, because, again, they’re so terrified of these dogs. They don’t want to be attacked. So, even after they’ve attempted to demonstrate full compliance, the animal is still commanded to attack them. So, for Xavia, the idea that the dog was lifted and placed onto his back, it bit his left leg, and then they removed the dog, and he was bit again on his right leg, it’s shocking, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an outlier or something that’s uncommon.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavia, you, I’m sure, have seen video of police attacking civil rights activists with dogs, like in Birmingham, the children in 1963. Your thoughts?

XAVIA GOODWYN: The same thing is still going today, just in a different way. You understand what I’m saying? I just sent Ms. Beckler something yesterday from on CNN. I was looking at CNN and seeing something similar. A dude was complying, and they still released a dog on him. So, yeah, I mean, it’s still going on, man.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavia, that’s really important, what you raised. I mean, you’re talking about the story of the video that was just released about a truck driver.

XAVIA GOODWYN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: He was Black, right? It was Ohio?

XAVIA GOODWYN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And when he got out of the truck, they said, “You have to have your hands above your head, behind your head.” And he had them high above his head.

XAVIA GOODWYN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: So he was in a very vulnerable position. No one thought that he was a threat. And you see behind him a policeman unleash a dog, even as other police or troopers are saying, “Do not release that dog.”

XAVIA GOODWYN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And a woman police officer, who looks horrified and is walking away as he is being attacked, mauled by this dog.

XAVIA GOODWYN: Yeah. Yeah, man. Absolutely. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, Hannah Beckler, what have you found? What states forbid the use of dogs? And what’s happening in these states where they are used so aggressively, where so many people — I mean, in the past years hundreds of people have been purposely bitten?

HANNAH BECKLER: I think what’s most startling about the use of dogs in correctional settings is there’s no academic study that assesses the efficacy of using these dogs. So it’s all over the place in terms of the policies and how they’re employed in these different state systems.

So, you have a system like Massachusetts, for example, where we documented three dog attacks in 2020 at Souza-Baranowski. Their policy is that the actual corrections commissioner is supposed to grant permission every time an attack-trained dog is entering the facility. So you have that kind of direct accountability chain, in contrast to Virginia, for example, where 271 people were attacked by dogs as a routine use of force. And then, New Jersey, for example, have not used dogs to attack anyone, but they’re still weaponizing terror by using the dogs to, again, terrify, with barking and snarling dogs, people who are incarcerated, to force them into compliance.

Now, I know that Utah, for example, has stopped using these dogs for use of force, so that does happen. Massachusetts and Arizona both independently, at one point, decided to stop using dogs. They have since reintroduced using dogs. So, it is a very interesting occurrence.

Most of the corrections officers and corrections administrators that I’ve spoken to argue that using dogs make facilities safer for both staff and prisoners alike. However, again, because these dogs are indiscriminately aggressive, we’re also seeing attacks on correction officers and other prison staff.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Xavia, what message do you have to share with people around the country and around the world?

XAVIA GOODWYN: It’s still going on in the western region of Virginia. Absolutely. It’s really heavy up there, still going on up there.

AMY GOODMAN: Xavia Goodwyn was attacked by a dog in 2015 at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia, near the town of Pound. Thanks also to Hannah Beckler, investigations editor for Insider. We’ll link to her new investigation, “Patrol dogs are terrorizing and mauling prisoners inside the United States.”

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