During the graveyard shift at 1:44 a.m., security cameras at the prison here picked up the blinking lights of an unidentified flying object approaching the facility’s fence.
A corrections officer was dispatched to investigate, but by the time she got there, all she could see was a man running away into the dense forest that surrounds the prison.
It was not until dawn that officers found a package that included a cellphone, tobacco and marijuana tangled in the power lines outside the prison and a small drone that had crashed in the bushes nearby. In the woods, investigators located a makeshift campground, the remote control device used to fly the drone, a bottle of grape-flavored Gatorade and drugs.
“It was a delivery system,” said Bryan P. Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, explaining how the drone’s operators had planned to send the contraband into the prison, the Lee Correctional Institution. “They were sending in smaller amounts in repeated trips. They would put it on there, they would deliver it, someone inside would get it somehow, and they would send it back out and send more in.”
It is the high-tech version of smuggling a file into a prison in a birthday cake, and it underscores the headache that drones are now creating for law enforcement and national security officials, who acknowledge that they have few, if any, ways of stopping them.
Drones flying over prison walls may not be the chief concern of corrections officials. But they say that some would-be smugglers are experimenting with the technique as an alternative to established methods like paying off officers, hiding contraband in incoming laundry and throwing packages disguised as rocks over fences into recreational yards.
The authorities have detected at least three similar attempts at corrections facilities in the United States in the past two years. In the same period, there were also at least four reported attempts abroad, in Ireland, Britain, Australia and Canada.
In January, guards found a drone with blue and red flashing lights on the ground inside a recreational yard at a prison in Bennettsville, S.C., according to investigative reports. On that drone were 55 grams of synthetic marijuana and a cellphone charger, the reports said.
Law enforcement officials say they have no way of knowing how many attempts have been successful, but the warden of the Lee Correctional Institute, Cecilia Reynolds, said that in recent weeks her guards found 17 phones in one inmate’s cell. She said she suspected that the phones continue to come in on drones.
“We’ve got to do something about this – these cellphones are killing us,” she said.
Prison officials, echoing Ms. Reynolds, say that convicts and their families and friends are willing to pay more than $1,000 to get a device – like an iPhone — into a prison. Smartphones are so desirable because unlike pay phones at prisons, they are not recorded or monitored, enabling gang leaders to freely run their criminal activities from behind bars. The phones also allow them to watch pornography and communicate surreptitiously with fellow prisoners.
Source: The New York Times | MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT