COLUMBIA, S.C. – All across the country, sophisticated drones have been used to smuggle drugs, weapons, cell phones and even porn into prisons.
Smugglers use rope or metal wire to attach loads filled with contraband to the bottom of a drone, which can be altered or modified to drop the loads by hand-held remote controls. The drones can fly up to a quarter of a mile away using GPS coordinates with little to no detection.
This makes it almost impossible for law enforcement to find the person controlling the devices.
South Carolina has dealt with the problem more than other states in previous years. In 2017, more than 28 drone sightings were reported across the state, in some cases causing inmates to escape or assault each other after they acquired cell phones from drone deliveries.
But now, in South Carolina, prison officials are implement the first drone program in the country to fight back against the disturbing new trend.
“We have been attacked by drones, they have been delivering contraband into our institutions for the past few years,” said South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.
Now, he said, they are using “the technology to our advantage.”
“If you consider that Amazon can deliver packages by drone, it’s not a far leap to the imagination a criminal could take anything, literally any item of contraband and do the exact same thing… you can preprogram it, set it to make multiple drops in multiple very precise locations.”
In April, mobile drone-detection equipment was installed in the state’s prisons to detect tiny aircraft and alert perimeter patrols. The drones are controlled by two pilots. The two former military members who guide the drones, and who asked not to be unidentified, travel with the equipment to and from the 21 prisons across the state.
“It gives us a visual of our institutions from up to 400 feet. We can see the entire institution, and we can see the perimeter,” Stirling said.
The drones, some of which have been confiscated from criminals and converted for use by the program’s pilots, use infrared technology. This feature helps them find contraband, like cell phones, weapons or drugs that criminals have either thrown over the fence or dropped in with drones at night.
If a criminal’s remote-controlled aircraft is spotted by the state’s drones, the director said outside agencies and prison officials will respond, intervene, and conduct an investigation.
“Over the last almost 20 years now, cell phones have allowed these folks that are incarcerated and the folks on the outside to communicate and organize and bring contraband in and also pay for it,” Stirling said. “So, that is obviously a problem that we have addressed.”
Security and investigative experts say as technology advances, so do criminals’ tactics.
“If you consider that Amazon can deliver packages by drone, it’s not a far leap to the imagination a criminal could take anything, literally any item of contraband and do the exact same thing,” CEO of Global Security Group David Katz said. “So, in other words, you can preprogram it, set it to make multiple drops in multiple very precise locations.”
In July of 2017, authorities said they believed a drone was used to deliver wire cutters used by convicted criminal Jimmy Causey to escape from Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C. He was apprehended more than 1,200 miles away in an Austin, Texas days later.
“But the bigger danger is, let’s say you have…a high-security prison. Now, take a larger drone, flip it right over the fence and drop – very dangerous items: pistols, ammunition, explosive devices or worse. That would be very, very easy to do with even a modest technological experience,” Katz said.
As another line of defense, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has instituted a 24/7 surveillance operation center to monitor everything from dorms to the perimeter of its institutions.
“We have almost doubled the number of cameras in the last three or so years that we have installed in the department,” Stirling said. “We are looking to add another 250 or so cameras and we are going to keep on adding cameras.”
Stirling said with the new drone program and surveillance center, criminals will see he isn’t playing around.
“It’s a clear message to folks that want to deliver contraband or are up to ill intent, or are on our property,” Stirling said, “that there’s a good chance they are being watched and we will respond and act accordingly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.