Magazine article The New Yorker

Scratch and Sniff

Magazine article The New Yorker

Scratch and Sniff

Article excerpt

Cell phones smell. You wouldn't think so, but they do. The K-9 Unit of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, while training seven recently acquired cell-phone-sniffing dogs, first put a whole bunch of cell-phone parts in a plastic box to create a kind of sachet of cell-phone scent for use in imprinting. The basic, pervasive cell-phone smell that built up in the closed box was powerful--a sweetish, metallic, ozoney, weird robotic reek. People would never carry such a rank object as a cell phone in their pockets if their noses were as good as a dog's.

To Troy, Ernie, Chance, and the other muscular, well-fed, and extremely enthusiastic dogs who search for illegal cell phones inside New Jersey's thirteen state prisons, the smell of a cell phone is bliss. They love to follow it, love finding its source even more. While held in restraint, just before the search, they emit low, well-disciplined whines of almost unbearable expectation. And when they do find the cell phone--or the cell-phone charger, the earpiece, the battery, or any other related object that somehow picked up cell-phone scent (recently a cell-phone-sniffing dog, though not trained to search for narcotics, found some narcotics that had evidently been stored next to a cell phone)--the dogs react with a panting, whining, scratching happiness greater than any human happiness by a factor similar to that by which a dog's sense of smell is said to be better than ours.

Inside a prison, cell phones defeat some of the purpose of incarceration. They're among the biggest problems prison officials face. Criminals with cell phones continue to run their gangs even while locked up. How do they get the phones? "Oh, gee--all kinds of ways," Thomas Moran, the New Jersey D.O.C. chief of staff, said the other day. "Their friends shoot 'em over the fence with potato guns, fly 'em in on model airplanes, arrows . . . Body cavities, of course, when a girlfriend visits. Packages. Food deliveries. F.C.C. regulations say we can't interfere with cell-phone transmissions by jamming. Going after the illegal phones with dogs is by far the most efficient means."

Recently, the officers of the K-9 Unit held a demonstration with their cell-phone dogs on the grounds of the Albert C. …

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