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Prison and Jail Officials Face New Challenge: Drones Used to Smuggle Contraband

Drones are increasingly being used in attempts to smuggle drugs and other contraband into prisons worldwide. Previously, smugglers had to bribe guards, use their body cavities or have accomplices sneak forbidden items through prison visitation. All of that is now changing with the availability of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones.

“The technology gets better and better, and we have to figure out how to fight that,” said Stephanie Givens, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

The problem is becoming so widespread that some prisons in Canada are draping nets over perimeter fences or walls to thwart drones. Other facilities have doubled their perimeter guards to deter airborne smugglers. However, as more people learn how to pilot drones, which are easily obtainable, reports of their use to deliver contraband continue to rise.

In April 2016, Michigan prison officials investigated a drone-like toy found on the grounds of the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center. While it was too small to carry contraband, it may have been an attempt to probe security at the facility in preparation for sending a larger drone.

“We don’t know whether this was someone testing the security system there, or if it was just some kid horsing around,” said Anita Lloyd, a spokesperson for the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents state prison guards.

“It’s funny because it’s truly a toy that came over. But in the larger sense, it is a very serious incident,” added Michigan DOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

A drone carrying three cell phones crashed at the CCA-operated Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma in March 2016; guards had seen it approach the prison at night. In October 2015, a drone was discovered at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary after it hit a fence and crash landed. It was carrying a variety of contraband that included tobacco, a cell phone, drugs and hacksaw blades.

Guards at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina discovered a downed drone during a routine perimeter check in April 2014. The drone, which had apparently crashed into the prison’s 12-foot-high wall, was carrying cell phones, marijuana and tobacco.

The previous month, four people were arrested for trying to smuggle tobacco into a state prison in Calhoun, Georgia via a remote-controlled hexacopter – a type of drone with six motors and propellers. “It’s a surprise,” said Sheriff Josh Hilton. “I’ve never seen a hexacopter.”

Prisons in Brazil, Russia, Australia, Thailand, Greece and England are also struggling to deal with increasing attempts to use drones to smuggle contraband.

In July 2014, guards at the Khao Bin prison in Thailand reviewed surveillance footage after receiving a tip and discovered a drone had snagged on a tree branch outside the facility. It was equipped with a GoPro video camera and Wi-Fi signal range extender, and carried two cell phones, two Bluetooth devices, four SIM cards and a pair of earphones.

Brazilian prisoners removed 250 grams of cocaine from a drone that landed at their facility in March 2014 before guards could stop them. And in Victoria, Australia, police searched a vehicle parked near a prison and found a drone with a small amount of drugs.

Washington state Senator Pam Roach proposed Senate Bill 6437 in February 2015 to help prison officials prevent drone smuggling. Although there have been no known cases of drone contraband smuggling in Washington, Roach has pushed to be proactive. “Let’s be smart and get ahead of it,” she said.

Her bill, which remains pending, would make flying a drone within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of a correctional facility without permission a Class C felony. Similar legislation has been introduced in Michigan; Senate Bills 487 and 488 make it a felony to operate drones within 1,000 feet of a prison.

South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan P. Stirling announced in April 2015 that extensive resources would be devoted to prevent drones from accessing state prisons; those resources include building new watch towers for guards to more easily spot approaching drones.

In August 2015, a fight broke out among 75 prisoners at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio after a drone dropped a shipment of drugs into the prison yard. The drone managed to bypass guards completely, and the true cause of the fight was revealed only after prison officials reviewed video surveillance footage.

“We’re taking a broad approach to increasing staff awareness and detection,” noted Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.

Later that same month, police officers in Maryland, tipped off by prison authorities, confiscated a drone along with porn videos, drugs, tobacco and a cell phone and charger from two men driving near the Western Correctional Institution. Both were arrested; they also had a handgun in their car, but it was too heavy to be lifted by the drone.

Prisoner Charles W. Brooks was convicted of arranging the contraband delivery and sentenced to 13 years in March 2016. He was already serving a life sentence. The two men who had planned to fly the drone into the facility, former prisoners Thaddeus Shortz and Keith Russell, also were convicted and sentenced to 13 and 5 years in prison, respectively.

“This is the first case in Maryland where a drone is suspected in a contraband delivery plot,” stated Stephen Moyer, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. However, Shortz reportedly told a police officer that he had made five or six drone deliveries before he was caught.

Some states are using the website to ensure participating manufacturers program their drones to not fly over prisons. The site “maintains a comprehensive airspace database of critical infrastructure and sensitive sites.” Other state prison systems have invested in Drone Shield, a detection device used to prevent illicit drone activities.

“They use drones to deliver contraband to a single cell window. This is the logistics chain Amazon is dreaming about,” said Joerg Lamprecht, the founder of Dedrone, a company that sells the DroneTracker.

While aerial drones are commonly associated with the military, they have been adopted for a number of private civilian uses – including photography and journalism, search and rescue missions, and even deliveries of items such as pizzas or medicine. The mega-online business Amazon has declared that drones are the new frontier in the delivery of consumer goods. As with any new technology, though, drones can also be used for more nefarious purposes.

“We have to understand and appreciate the fact that criminals and terrorists are often early adapters of technology, and the latest global trends in robotics have not been lost on them,” wrote Marc Goodman, founder of the Future Crimes Institute for TED’s Ideas blog. “In other words, sadly, criminals and terrorists can fly drones, too.”

While drones have thus far mostly been used to smuggle drugs, cell phones and tobacco into correctional facilities, prison officials are concerned that they could deliver more dangerous items, such as weapons.

In Ireland, police and prison officials are using admittedly low-tech means to thwart drones – a pair of eyes and wires. Smugglers thought they had found the perfect way to bypass security at a Dublin facility when they used a state-of-the-art quadcopter drone. The quadcopter, equipped with a video camera, was flown into the yard of Wheatfield prison where prisoners quickly ran off with the package of drugs it was carrying.

Guards spotted the drone and forced it off-balance, which caused it to crash into overhead wires that had been installed for the purpose of stopping aircraft – albeit full-sized helicopters – from landing after three IRA prisoners pulled off an aerial escape in 1973.

 “This goes to show the lengths people will go to get drugs into prison now that other methods have failed,” a source told the Independent newspaper. “It can’t be ruled out that these drones have not been successfully used to get drugs in before.”

While government officials have cited practical limitations regarding the use of drones for smuggling purposes, they remain wary. Drones have a limited flight distance, and the amount of time they can fly and what they can carry are also restricted, noted Professor Duncan Campbell with the Queensland University of Technology.

Most commercially-available drones have a flight duration of 10-25 minutes, and the operator usually has to keep the drone in a direct line of sight to control it. The Federal Aviation Administration recently issued regulations for privately-owned drones, including registration requirements; failure to register can result in fines and up to three years in prison – although those who use drones to smuggle contraband are unlikely to comply with FAA rules.

David McCauley, acting industrial officer of the prison officers’ vocational branch of the Public Service Association in Melbourne, Australia, said drone delivery is just the next step in the “logical evolution for smugglers” who sneak drugs and other contraband into correctional facilities. “At the end of the day if they can throw tennis balls over the wall with drugs in them, and with staffing levels the way they are, it’s going to be very difficult to stop these drones,” he observed.

Sources:, USA Today, Associated Press,,,,, CBS News,, New York Times, The Guardian, CNN,,, Detroit Free Press,, Baltimore Sun,

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