Chocolate lab Marley may be nearing retirement age at almost 10 years old, but this working dog still has a few new tricks in him.
His keen sense of smell has been helping to expose contraband in Maryland’s prisons, and alcohol concocted by inmates is the latest addition to the tally of illegal items Marley and other dogs have been tasked with discovering in facilities like Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County.
The alcohol detection program is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
Marley is one of many rescues taken in by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ K-9 Unit — not only saving the state money, but also offering a second chance.
“These are dogs that just would not make it in your home. These are the dogs that like to jump. They’re too rambunctious. They’ve got too much energy. They’ll chew up your couch, and they just need a job. That’s exactly what we give them,” said Major Mark Flynn, who heads up the K-9 unit.
A recent initiative to teach the department’s already working “contraband dogs” to sniff out methanol and ethanol — both products of the prison alcohol-making process — has tripled the K-9 unit’s finds over the past two months compared to the previous two years.
“Number one, it (alcohol) makes them (inmates) much less compliant with our instructions. Number two, it makes them belligerent, assaultive to both other inmates and staff,” Flynn said of the safety risk alcohol poses in correctional facilities.
Prison wine is made from a concoction of fruit, some form of yeast and liquid that ferments while left somewhere hot. This pungent mix has a high, unregulated alcohol content that can reach as much as 24%.
That “mash” can also be distilled into moonshine in a process that produces ethanol and methanol. While the ethanol is a component of the everyday alcoholic beverage that’s safe to drink, methanol is a “highly dangerous” substance, Flynn stressed.
The typical distilling process separates the two, tossing out the methanol that’s produced first. If an inmate doesn’t get rid of the methanol, Flynn explained that drinking even a small amount of that concentrated substance could lead to blindness or even death.
It took six or seven weeks of training to imprint the alcohol odors before English Springer Spaniel Gisele was set to become the first member of the K-9 unit to start tracking down prison wine and moonshine.
She’s already number one in the unit when it comes to discovering drugs, catching more suboxone packaged in the mail than any of the other dogs.
“Although she’s small, she is fierce,” Flynn said.
The dogs’ sense of smell can hone in on contraband that could take dozens of correctional officers hours to find. There are dogs in each of the four regions of the state that are searching at least some part of an institution daily — whether that’s cells, dormitories or returning road crews.
The paycheck for these hardworking pups is all the treats, playtime and attention they get from their handlers, each of whom are dog lovers themselves.
“The dogs love to hunt. It’s their natural instinct, and they enjoy it because they get so much praise for it,” Flynn said.