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Why 10 states want to ban drones from flying over prisons

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Over the past few years, ever-craftier prison inmates have engineered a new way to sneak drugs and other contraband into prison facilities: via drone.

The benefits of using drones are manifest. Rather than trying to conceal items in ever more creative ways – hiding a file inside a birthday cake, melting drugs onto the pages of a coloring book, hiding things inside human orifices – drones can zoom right over prison walls without undergoing prison guard inspection.

And the process is simple. An inmate recruits a smuggler on the outside, who ties a small package to the drone so that it dangles underneath when the drone is airborne. Then the smuggler flies the drone (typically with a remote control) over prison walls to open spaces on the inside, like outdoor recreational areas.

The practice has only cropped up in a few places, in states as far-flung as Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. But experts warn that as the devices drop in price and become capable of carrying heavier payloads, they will likely become smugglers’ courier of choice.

"I would say it’s definitely not that widespread a problem right now," said Bryce Peterson, a research associate at the Urban Institute. "But it certainly seems like, down the road, this is something that could become a huge problem."

Law enforcement officials are vexed about how best to address the problem, acknowledging that preventing drones from breaching prison protections is a daunting and expensive task. Instead, 10 states are now considering a different approach. They want to make it a crime to fly drones anywhere near prisons.

What have inmates been able to achieve using drones?

Though only a few drone-facilitated smuggling efforts have been discovered so far, they demonstrate the range of missions inmates are accomplishing with the new technology.

The problem first caught the public’s attention In 2014, when prison officers in South Carolina discovered a drone ferrying marijuana and a cellphone that had gotten tangled in the power lines outside the prison. Upon further investigation, the officers found a campground nearby from which an accomplice had been shuttling drugs in small packages.

"They were sending in smaller amounts in repeated trips," Bryan P. Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, told the New York Times. "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."

Several similar incidents started cropping up in 2015. A drone dropped a package of drugs in an Ohio prison’s recreation yard last August, containing enough marijuana for more than 70 joints and a dollop of heroin large enough to yield about 100 doses. The package’s landing went unnoticed by prison guards until they investigated a fight between inmates it had caused.

That same month, law enforcement in Maryland intercepted a prison-bound drone carrying drugs, tobacco, and pornography.

And in October, yet another package crash-landed in an Oklahoma prison after clipping a razor wire fence and losing control. The package it was transporting contained what appeared to be materials for an escape: hacksaw blades, superglue, and cellphones (plus more drugs).

But these are likely not the only times inmates have employed drones as their preferred couriers; they’re just the only incidences that have come to the public’s attention.

"It’s really hard to say how often it’s happening, because most facilities don’t have adequate systems to stop drones from coming in yet," Peterson said. "So the only times you get a report are when people see a drone flying around or if it crashes."

How states are trying to legislate around this problem

Though most states haven’t detected a drone incident on their own soil, legislators in 10 states have proposed bills to ban the practice, according to Amanda Essex of the National Conference of State Legislatures. An 11th state, Tennessee, has already enacted a law that prohibits drones from being flown over the grounds of a prison facility.

The bills all take a similar approach. They all specify an area over which drones are not permitted to fly, punishable by anything from a $500 fine in Louisiana to six years in prison in Colorado. A few states, including Washington, are also toying with additional penalties for individuals using drones specifically to carry contraband – though that is the impetus of the entire legislative push.

"It’s like anything, new technology brings new problems," Illinois state Sen. Tim Bivins, a Republican sponsoring that state’s legislation, told the Associated Press. Bivins’s bill would tack on an extra year of prison to inmates involved in bringing contraband into prison with a drone.

Still, most of the bills don’t address the larger problem at hand, which is that most prisons don’t have the necessary equipment to prevent drones from entering to begin with. Some complexes, like the one in South Carolina, have installed surveillance cameras that watch for incoming drones. Other prison facilities are considering technology that could intercept the radio waves that connect drones to their remote controls.

But that sort of equipment is expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars per system, Peterson said. For the most part, states haven’t offered up the additional funds to cover new security costs.

There’s also a risk that if prison facilities choose only one type of protection, inmates can use upgraded drones to surpass them. For example, if a prison adopts radio wave detection technology, inmates can simply upgrade to unmanned drones that don’t require remote controls to fly.

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