Drones and Prisons: Are Drones Being Used for No Good?

Last updated December 13th, 2019
A prison with barbed wire

The potential of drones as vehicles for delivery is a promising one that is driving excitement in many industries.

Unfortunately, it seems that criminals have not missed a beat and are putting their drone wings to criminal use.

Many correctional facilities around the world are ramping up anti-drone measures to counter what they say is a genuine threat to order in their facilities.

Do Drones Pose a Problem to Prisons?

Not everybody is impressed with drones and the opportunities they present. Anti-drone technology firm, Dedrone, counts as one of them.

As part of their drive towards reducing the number of drones in circulation among the public, Dedrone conducted a nine months long study on the subject of drones over prison facilities.

The results are eye-opening.

The results, which were compiled in a whitepaper, provide a sharp focus on the impact drones have on prisons. It turns out the impact is significant, and a strong reason why prison administrators are clamoring for stricter regulation.

The examples included in the whitepaper which highlight the impact of drones include:

Ohio DOC Fends Off Riots After Drone Drops Contraband

The first publicly recorded prison event caused by drones took place in 2015 when the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections recounted a yard fight that began between 75 inmates after a drone dropped a package from the air into the facility.

According to reports, the drone dropped 144.5g of tobacco, 65.4g of marijuana, and 6.6g of heroin.

A fight broke out, and the package was thrown into the south yard of the prison.

Officers had to resort to pepper spray to calm the situation down, after which inmates were strip-searched being restored to their cells.

South Caroline DOC Reveals Prison Break with Assistance from Maximum Security Thanks to Drone and Contraband

After trying out deliveries by drone, prisoners expanded their creativity by going beyond their drug habits to testing the security of the prison facility.

In 2017, the South Carolina Department of Corrections revealed the occurrence of a prison break that would have never happened without the help of a drone.

An inmate broke out of a maximum security penitentiary after using a cellphone to direct his movement, a quickly assembled dummy for the purpose of throwing the patrol officers off, and a crucial accessory that was delivered by drone—wire cutters.

After getting through the fences, the prisoner-turned-fugitive became the subject of a manhunt. He was eventually apprehended by the authorities.

When he was apprehended, he had in his possession a semi-automatic pistol, a pump shotgun, four cell phones, and $47,654 cash.

French Prison Identify Drone Spies Just Before the Armed Escape of a High Profile Inmate

Drones have been used to monitor movement and aid in carrying out sophisticated attacks at correctional facilities by organized crime units.

Drones could be seen flying overhead a French prison several months prior to an ambitious prison break. Well-armed men burst into the prison courtyard with a helicopter, and then used a grinding machine to break down a door.

Behind the door was a visiting room in which an important prisoner was seeing his brother. The gunmen left with the prisoner to freedom, escorting him to freedom.

Drone Botches Delivery of Contraband onto the Prison, Drops Drugs at an Elementary School Instead

It is not every drone delivery that makes it to its designated destination. Some end up somewhere else entirely, putting an unwitting community at risk of experiencing violence and criminal activities.

In Canada, a drone carrying a cargo composed of marijuana, mobile phones, tobacco, SIM cards, lighters, and glue, crashed onto the roof of a primary school.

Investigators think the drone was headed for a prison located about a mile from the school. But they lost control of the drone.

UK Law Officials Prosecute Perpetrators of Organized Crime After They Dropped Over $1.34 Million in Contraband Through Drones

The more time criminals have on their hands, the more creative they can get with their drone-delivered contraband.

In 2017, law officials in the United Kingdom charged main characters in a well-orchestrated scheme, involving a drone “gang” that linked criminals with contacts behind prison walls. Their operations were able to deliver about $1.34 million worth of contraband payload.

Investigators had proof that suggested at least 49 drone flights had taken place during the operation. During some of those flights, fishing ropes and hooks had been used to hang the contraband outside prison windows.

prisoners, on their part, leveraged tools like broom handles to grab and pull in the contraband inside.

Drones Are Getting A Criminal Reputation

When drones are being used so effectively by criminals for smuggling, drug trafficking, inciting riots, and facilitating prison breaks, they tend to bear the brunt of the bad press.

It’s similar to the world of cryptocurrency, where stories of misuse can significantly outweigh the use of good.

Regulators have already reacted by restricting drone flights over prisons and correctional facilities.

But there is an equally strong push for the use of counter drone solutions that have been proven to be effective at stopping criminal drone flights and saving the drone industry from more embarrassment, increased regulations, and penalties.

How Prisons Are Responding to the Drone Threat

The most notable effort against the drone invasion against prisons is taking place in the UK.

Anti-drone systems are gaining support among quarters in the government. And after initial tests that have shown some systems capable of stopping drug smuggling in English prisons, relevant ministers are beginning to seriously consider a nationwide rollout over the years.

Prison governors and officers, as well as the chief inspector of prisons have expressed frustrations in the past about the failure of the prison service to leverage technology to tackle a technologically driven problem like the smuggling operations that are feeding the growing drug problems in jails.

But ministers in charge had been resisting any attempts at implementations; mainly because of the perceived cost of implementing an anti-drone system.

However, things seem to be turning around. The authorities in charge of prisons have been speaking to members of parliament about the success of the tests that have been carried out and outlining the way forward in conjunction with prison officials.

The system in question involves using an electronic fencing technique that has already been shown to work well in Guernsey. Not only have the tests shown this fencing technique to be effective, they have also shown that it is a low cost solution that sits well with the budget sensitive bigwigs at the helm of the ministry in charge of prisons.

This new fencing technique (that has been dubbed SkyFence) works by blocking radio signals around a prison whenever drones are detected.

The governor of Guernsey prison insists it works “superbly”, and that ever since tests have been ongoing no drones or other devices have succeeded in breaching the prison’s perimeter.

And this fencing technology works without damaging any devices.

SkyFence, so far, looks like a promising way to solve the drone invasion into prisons.

How Much Does SkyFence Cost?

SkyFence was installed for £120,000 during the test. But this is not really a true representation of the cost.

The company behind the technology, Drone Defence, was willing to incur a loss during the installation in the hopes that once that phase proved a success, they would be called up for future commissions.

And they have reason to hope for more steady business in the future, given the heavy publicity that the drone smuggling problem enjoyed after the conviction of seven drone gang members who airlifted £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons.

In his annual report, the chief inspector of prisons also highlighted the ready availability of drugs in prisons, which was in turn contributing to the escalating rates of violence.

In his report, the Chief Inspector accused the Prison Service of being too slow to take advantage of available technology to tackle a problem centered on tech.

Drone Defence could quickly get a contract in the aftermath for implementing something which promised to reduce the occurrence the now popular smuggling problem.

To get things rolling, the authorities amended the 2012 Prison Act which gave prisons the right to block mobile phone signals. The amendment included drones to the mix.

How Well Does the Anti-Drone Fencing System Work?

During a one month testing period, SkyFence was activated 32 different times.

The overwhelming majority of these times involved picking up the signal of drones being used for innocent purposes near the prison.

However, there were a few times when it was able to pick up suspicious drone activity, and one of these included a situation a signal was detected at 2am for several consecutive days.

So as a preventative measure, the system has stood up to the test, so far.

It remains to be seen whether the government will keep to its promise of widespread rollout in the future.

The authorities remain anxious about potentially costly legal fees if property is damaged or if people get hurt by drones whose signals have been intercepted, though experts insist that intercepting the signal simple means the drones are forced to return to their designated home points, rather them falling out of the sky. The signal between drone and controller is simply blocked, but the drone itself is not tampered with.

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