Contraband detection dog Mack to join Merrimack County jail staff

  • Mack sniffs out gunpowder in a pair of shoes placed as a test in the minimum security wing with handler Joseph Costanzo, who is captain of operations at the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen. Costanzo is a primary trainer working with Mack. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • LEFT: Mack gets some positive feedback during training with Joe Costanzo, captain of operations at Merrimack County Department of Corrections in Boscawen.

  • Mack sniffs out gunpowder in a pair of shoes placed as a test in the minimum security wing with handler Joseph Costanzo. He is the Captain of Operations Merrimack County Deptartment of Corrections and one of the trainers for personnel working with Mack. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mack with his team at the Department of Corrections, from left, Honor Guard officers Rex Parent and Elizabeth Reynolds; Joe Costanzo (center) Captain of Operations at Merrimack County Department of Corrections; Special Response Team officers Jon Sciuto and Justin Bishop. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: Mack makes a test run around the laundry area at the minimum security wing with handler Joseph Costanzo. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Mack sniffs around the lounge as a test in the minimum security wing with handler Joseph Costanzo. He is the Captain of Operations Merrimack County Deptartment of Corrections and one of the trainers for personnel working with Mack. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mack with his team at the Department of Corrections, from left, Honor Guard officers Rex Parent and Elizabeth Reynolds; Joe Costanzo (center) Captain of Operations at Merrimack County Department of Corrections; Special Response Team officers Jon Sciuto and Justin Bishop. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/29/2017 11:01:03 PM

Twenty-month-old Mack had a job to do Tuesday in a minimum security wing of the Merrimack County jail.

His first task: to find the cocaine hidden somewhere inside the kitchen cabinets and drawers. Next, Mack was led to a nearby lounge, which he circled several times before setting his eyes on a fire hydrant box concealing heroin. Finally, he dashed to a sleeping quarters where he jumped onto a bottom bunk and located a white sneaker holding a bag of gunpowder.

Mack, a highly-energetic and social Belgian Malinois, is currently training at the Boscawen jail twice a week, but in June or July will assume full-time residency at the facility. He is preparing for an important role as the only contraband detection dog working at a New Hampshire county jail.

“He’s going to be a really good tool for this facility, and he will help keep the inmate populous safe and our staff safe,” said Captain of Operations Joe Costanzo, who is spearheading the new initiative.

Jail Superintendent Ross Cunningham said he hopes Mack will be a deterrent to people who might otherwise consider smuggling drugs into the jail. Keeping the correctional facility clean of all contraband is the ultimate goal of the program, he said, while noting that the presence of drugs continues to be a problem.

Certain inmates with a history of illicit drug use during previous jail stays are among those put on “dry tank status” upon admission, so that staff can closely monitor them. The inmates who use drugs will most often conceal and swallow them within a deflated balloon or store them in a body cavity, making it difficult for corrections officials to detect banned substances.

Cunningham said there are other tools the jail could use to detect contraband, such as X-ray scanners, and while the scanners haven’t been ruled out, they’re a far more costly solution. One body scanner costs roughly $200,000.

“We’re methodically moving our way through it, starting with the dog program and, perhaps, there are other things that we can put in place long-term,” he said.

Once trained, Mack will also be available to all county jails in the state who may request his services. Other jail superintendents have already expressed an interest in Merrimack County’s program, which was made possible by grant funding.

The state’s department of justice awarded the county a $25,000 grant for the program’s startup and to help finance Mack’s trips to and from other correctional facilities. The grant, which is derived from federal funds, will pay for Mack, his training, his handlers’ training and his living space. Officials say they will assess annual program costs and the best way to finance them as part of the next budget cycle. The program will operate with existing staff.

The initiative in Merrimack County piggybacks off of a similar program spearheaded by the New Hampshire Department of Corrections this past fall. When Commissioner William Wrenn requested grant funding for two dogs to patrol the state’s three prisons and 11 district probation/parole offices, state officials wanted to open up the opportunity to county jails interested in a dog program, said Tom Kaempfer, director of the grants management unit at the state’s attorney general’s office. Merrimack County jumped on board, and when no other jail expressed an interest in starting its own program, the county offered to expand its initial concept and provide assistance to other facilities, he said.

Merrimack County is partnering with Crusade Group LLC of Manchester, which trains dogs to assist military, law enforcement and private security firms. The company was chosen from a handful across the country who responded as part of a bidding process that took place in fall 2016.

Crusade Group CEO Rob Kelly, who is a former New Hampshire law enforcement officer, is helping train Mack for his new role in Merrimack County, the place after which the dog was named. Mack, who was born in Mexico and most recently lived in North Carolina, has already started to bond with Costanzo, who will oversee the dogs other primary and also secondary handlers.

Kelly and Costanzo said the goal all along has been to get Mack to work with as many people as possible so that he can be effective during the department’s three shifts.

“Mack will bond with each one of his primary handlers and understand the working relationship,” Kelly said, noting that each handler is certified individually with the dog. When Mack gives off cues, whether in his body posture or through other means, each handler must be able to respond accordingly, he said.

Mack will have a kennel at the jail and adjacent Edna McKenna building, the old county jail which shuttered roughly 12 years ago and is being refurbished as a community corrections center. The 70-bed transitional center will house minimum security inmates and provide both inpatient treatment and living space for work release beginning this December.

Multiple possibilities exist for when and where Mack could be used at the jail, including in the front lobby, inmate processing room and in individual housing units. First, he has to get comfortable in his new environment, which includes open stairwells, concrete floors and noisy radio feeds.

Inmates were cleared out of a wing of the minimum security unit at the jail Tuesday so Mack could test his skills at finding planted contraband. Each time he completed one of the given tasks he was rewarded with a toy, which he resisted giving up, but ultimately did at Costanzo’s verbal command.

At the end of his training session, Mack stood proudly by Costanzo. Despite panting heavily, he showed an eagerness to keep going. His next lesson: to learn that not every search ends with a reward.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)


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