In the age-old business of smuggling contraband into prisons, some inmates in the Carolinas are turning to a new tool:
Piloted by an unseen operator in central North Carolina, a drone crashed inside a prison fence. A tightly wrapped package – containing a cellphone, tobacco and other contraband apparently intended for inmates – was tethered to the aircraft during that 2015 flight.
Another drone toting marijuana, tobacco and cellphones crashed in 2014, just outside the fence line of a South Carolina prison.
And at a prison in northern Ohio, a fight broke out among inmates in 2015 after yet another remote-controlled aircraft dropped heroin into an exercise yard.
Prison leaders across the nation are working to address the threat posed by the increasingly inexpensive technology.
In South Carolina, it may soon become a crime to fly a drone over prison grounds. A bill that recently passed the S.C. Senate would make it a misdemeanor to fly a drone within 500 feet around or 250 feet above a prison or jail without written consent from the state prisons director.
South Carolina has also built new watchtowers at some of its prisons so that officers can keep an eye on any airborne intruders.
Other states have begun employing technology that uses microphones, cameras and thermal imaging to spot drones.
In North Carolina, prison leaders “continue to investigate new technologies and options for drone detection and deterrence,” spokesman Keith Acree says.
Dropping prices, rising popularity
Reports of contraband-carrying drones have not yet become widespread.
North Carolina officials say they’ve had two cases of drones crashing within prison fences, both in 2015. In each of those cases, the drones were recovered by prison staff members before the contraband they were carrying made its way into the prison.
In about a half dozen other cases over the past two years, drones have been spotted flying over or near N.C. prisons, Acree says.
In South Carolina, prison leaders say they are aware of five cases in which drones have dropped contraband.
While the number of cases is not yet large, the potential threat is, experts and lawmakers say.
S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who sponsored the legislation that would make it a crime to fly drones over prisons, says it’s “scary enough” that drones have dropped contraband.
“But what would be even scarier is if a drone was used to drop a weapon or video a facility to aid an escape,” Sheheen said. “I don’t have any reports of that happening in South Carolina. But we need to get ahead of it.”
Drones are growing in popularity as prices drop. Models that can carry half a pound cost as little as $80.
Operators may also find the technology attractive because it allows them to “get away quickly,” Acree said.
But delivering contraband to the intended target can be a challenge.
In the central North Carolina case, the line that tethered the contraband to the drone got tangled in a piece of heating and cooling equipment, Acree said. The aircraft crashed in a part of the prison grounds that’s off-limits to inmates, Acree said. When staff members opened the oblong package, they discovered a cellphone, a charger, tobacco, rolling papers and a lighter.
And in the 2014 South Carolina case, the drone carrying phones, tobacco products, marijuana and synthetic marijuana crashed before making it over the 12-foot-high razor wire fence surrounding Lee Correctional Institution, about 90 miles south of Charlotte.
Many contraband smugglers still rely on less high-tech methods: throwing things over prison fences, passing things to inmates during visits and paying off corrupt guards.
Said Acree: “Of all the ways to get contraband into prisons, (using drones) is one of many.”
Staff Writer Gavin Off contributed.