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This drone crashed inside a prison. Under new bill, pilot could wind up there, too.

This drone was found crashed inside the fence of a prison in central North Carolina in 2015. It was carrying a cellphone and other contraband. Prison officials found the package before it made its way to inmates.
This drone was found crashed inside the fence of a prison in central North Carolina in 2015. It was carrying a cellphone and other contraband. Prison officials found the package before it made its way to inmates.

Flying a drone over prisons and jails in North Carolina could soon become a crime, under a recently introduced bill.

Earlier this month, a story in the Observer showed how some inmates in the Carolinas have begun turning to drones as their newest tool for delivering contraband into prisons.

The new bill would prohibit anyone but law enforcement officials from flying drones within 250 feet above or 500 feet around prisons and jails. Those who use drones to deliver weapons or other contraband could be charged with felonies, while others who simply fly drones near prisons could be charged with misdemeanors.

The bill resembles one introduced earlier this year in South Carolina. That legislation would also make it a misdemeanor to fly a drone near a prison or jail without written consent from the state prisons director.

Prison leaders across the nation are working to address the threat posed by the increasingly inexpensive technology.

North Carolina officials say they’ve had two cases of drones crashing within prison fences, both in 2015. The drones were recovered by prison staff members before the contraband they were carrying made its way into the prison.

In one of those cases – which occurred at a central North Carolina prison that state officials declined to name – the line that tethered the contraband to the drone got tangled in a piece of heating and cooling equipment, state prison spokesman Keith 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.

In about a half dozen other cases over the past two years, drones have been spotted flying over or near N.C. prisons, Acree said.

In South Carolina, prison leaders say they are aware of five cases in which drones have dropped contraband.

The North Carolina legislation, sponsored by GOP Reps. John Faircloth, Allen McNeill and John Torbett, was filed on Feb. 16 and has been referred to the House transportation committee.

While the number of cases is not yet large, the potential threat is, experts and lawmakers say.

“We don’t want a drone dropping a gun into the yard of a prison,” McNeill said. “It could cause a death or an injury to a prisoner or a guard.”

S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who sponsored the legislation that would make it a crime to fly drones over prisons in South Carolina, 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.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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