05/30/2012 09:09 EDT | Updated 07/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Dogs Out-Fetch High-Tech Tools In Prison War On Drugs

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The Conservative government has spent millions of dollars on sophisticated technology to enforce its "zero tolerance" policy on drugs in federal prisons, but new tools have detected only a small fraction of the narcotics, pills and alcohol seized behind bars, records show.

Figures on seizures in federal institutions from the last fiscal year show traditional methods like security staff and sniffer dogs have been far more effective at finding illicit items than high-tech tools.

In the last fiscal year, there were 2,840 seizures of cocaine, marijuana, pills, home brew and a number of contraband drugs ranging from pain killers, steroids and anti-depressants.

The documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act also show only 26 seizures were detected by an ION scanner, 17 by X-ray and nine with a metal detector, while the bulk (1,892) were by security staff, frisk (239) or sniffer dogs (200). Another 109 seizures were made through strip searches.

In 2008, the federal government devoted $122 million to eradicate drugs in prisons with a “zero-tolerance” policy and national strategy to shut off the supply of drugs. The three-pronged approach includes prevention, intervention and interdiction and enforcement. Drug-detection tools ranged from sniffer dogs to new ION scanners and X-ray machines.

During an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics host Evan Solomon, Candice Hoeppner, the parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, defended the government's approach and said it’s working to eradicate drugs. High-tech tools work "hand-in-glove" as part of the overall strategy, she said.

"Under our government's watch we’ve been able to seize 30 per cent more drugs than have been seized previously," Hoeppner said. "But I don’t think any of us are satisfied with that."

The House of Commons public safety committee launched a comprehensive study on drugs in prison and recently released its report called 'Drugs and Alcohol in Federal Penitentiaries: An Alarming Problem.' It notes that drugs are often linked to gangs and organized crime, which can increase violence and destabilize the prison environment.

The report pointed out that smugglers are "quite ingenious" — and that various networks operate inside to intimidate and pressure family member visitors and ex-prisoners to bring in drugs in pens, food and clothing. Because institutions are often located in wooded areas, drugs can also come in via "throw-overs" stuffed in tennis balls, arrows or dead birds, projected by bow, slingshot or potato guns.

The report from the Conservative-dominated panel concludes there has been "significant progress," but makes several recommendations for improvement.

But a dissenting opinion from the NDP called the report "fundamentally flawed" for failing to accurately reflect the testimony. It accused Conservative committee members of misusing the study to pursue "narrow political goals" rather than evidence-based approach.

"The most starting example of the information missing from this report is the failure to note evidence that clearly demonstrated $122 million dollars of Conservative spending on interdiction tools and technology since 2008 has not led to any reduction in drug use in prisons," it reads.

Speaking on Power & Politics, NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said the government’s investment on high-tech tools isn’t working — and that the money would be much better spent on rehabilitation programs.

"Saying you have a zero-tolerance policy is a bit like saying abstinence is the policy for birth control — these are aspirations, they’re not policies," he said. "We need effective policies to help treat addiction — and that will help reduce the demand for drugs in prison."

Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia also raised concerns that federal budget cuts could hit treatment programs in prisons and worsen the drug problem.

The Correctional Service of Canada said it's making progress but is always looking at new technologies that could assist in detecting drugs and other contraband.

Because drugs are often smuggled in to institutions through body cavities, CSC has also tested two Body Orifice Scanning System chairs which cost about $30,000 each.

The technology has worked in detecting items of larger size, but is less effective in finding smaller items deeper in body cavities.

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