Originally published on August 18, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Defying conventional smuggling techniques, drone operators around the world are using a new method to sneak drugs, tobacco, cell phones, and other contraband into prisons. Capable of flying great distances, drones stashed with illicit packages can easily bypass prison walls to complete their deliveries. Many guards complain that they lack the proper ammunition to shoot down the drones.
The most recent drone was discovered on July 21, 2014, at a prison in Thailand. After receiving a tip-off about smuggling, guards at the Khao Bin prison reviewed surveillance footage and discovered a drone snagged on a tree branch inside the compound. The DJI Phantom drone they found was a quadcopter equipped with a GoPro video camera and a Wi-Fi signal range extender. Taped to the drone were two Nokia cell phones, two Bluetooth devices, four SIM cards, an integrated circuit and a pair of earphones. The drone operator escaped and is still at large.
On April 21, 2014, guards at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina discovered a drone while conducting a routine perimeter check outside the prison. Officials believe the downed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed into the prison’s 12-foot-tall razor wire fence and landed in the bushes. The drone had been carrying marijuana, cell phones, tobacco, and synthetic marijuana.
Police arrested Brenton Lee Doyle on June 12 for attempting to smuggle contraband into the prison. He was also charged with possession of the drug flunitrazepam, also known as roofies. Investigators are also searching for a second suspect who was caught on camera purchasing some of the smuggled items. Doyle refuses to cooperate with their investigation.
In 2010, Corrections Capt. Robert Johnson was shot six times at his home after an inmate acquired a smuggled cell phone and placed a contract on him. Capt. Johnson survived the attacked and has retired from Lee Correctional Institution.
In March, drones operators smuggled drugs into prisons in Brazil and Australia. On March 7, corrections officers at Centro de Detenção Provisória 1 spotted a drone hovering over the prison. It dropped off a small package containing 250 grams of cocaine onto the prison patio. The prisoners acquired the drugs before the guards could stop them.
On March 9, an Australia man was arrested after corrections officers noticed a drone hovering near a prison in Ravenhall. Victoria Police searched his car and found a drone with four engines along with a small amount of drugs. The police have charged him with attempting to smuggle drugs into prison.
Last year, a drone successfully made two drops to inmates inside Calhoun state prison in Georgia before the operators got caught. Marc Circle, Angel Thomas, Aaron Foster, and Donavan Johnson were arrested after police searched their car and found a six-rotor remote-controlled helicopter along with several cell phones and tobacco. They face a maximum sentence of 20 years if found guilty of attempting to smuggle contraband into the prison.
Earlier that week, corrections officers spotted a drone smuggling contraband into a jail in Quebec. The drone escaped and guards were unable to locate the package it had delivered. The jail has doubled its perimeter patrols to deter further incidents.
In 2011, four Russian men planned to use a remote-controlled helicopter to smuggle 700 grams of heroin into a pre-trial prison. Police arrested the men before they could carry out the act.
On December 23, 2008, a toy helicopter smuggled contraband into Elmley Prison in England. CCTV cameras caught the remote-controlled helicopter flying over the wall toward the cellblocks. It was carrying a small package beneath its fuselage, but guards failed to apprehend the helicopter or locate the contraband.
Before the invention of drones, inmates had to bribe corrections officers, fill their body cavities, or convince an accomplice to help smuggle contraband into the prison during visitations. Some Canadian prisons drape nets over their perimeter to prevent smuggling. For years, people have thrown contraband over prison walls, used bows and arrows, or even slingshots to deliver their illicit packages. As more people learn to pilot drones, incidents of drone smuggling continue to rise.