In­mates smug­gle loot via drone

Aerial de­liv­er­ies of phones, drugs, porn slip be­hind bars

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Waseem Ab­basi

While large com­pa­nies such as Ama­zon test drone de­liv­ery sys­tems, in­mates in jails across the coun­try al­ready use the de­vices to re­ceive their own aerial ship­ments: smug­gled con­tra­band.

Doc­u­ments ob­tained from the Jus­tice De­part­ment by USA TO­DAY through a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest un­cov­ered more than a dozen at­tempts to trans­port con­tra­band — in­clud­ing mo­bile phones, drugs and porn — into fed­eral pris­ons in the past five years. State fa­cil­i­ties have re­ported sim­i­lar in­ci­dents.

Ex­perts said anti- drone tech­nolo­gies fail to pro­tect jails against the un­manned aerial de­vices that trans­port dan­ger­ous items, in­clud­ing firearms, which are al­most im­pos­si­ble to sneak in via tra­di­tional prison smug­gling meth­ods.

“Civil­ian drones are be­com­ing more in­ex­pen­sive, easy to op­er­ate and pow­er­ful. A grow­ing num­ber of crim­i­nals seem to be rec­og­niz­ing their po­ten­tial value as tools for bad deeds,” said Troy Rule, a drone leg­is­la­tion ad­vo­cate and Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity law pro­fes­sor.

Though smug­gling con­tra­band into prison through any method vi­o­lates fed­eral law, no statute bars drones from fly­ing near cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments, an in­mate at the high- se­cu­rity fed­eral prison in Vic­torville, Calif., re­cruited some­one to use a drone to smug­gle in two cell­phones in March 2015. Prison of­fi­cials didn’t dis­cover the trans­fer for five months. Sim­i­lar in­ci­dents oc­curred at the United States Pen­i­ten­tiary in At­wa­ter, Calif., the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion in Oak­dale, La., and the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion in Seagov­ille, Texas, the doc­u­ments re­vealed. The Fed­eral Bureau of Pris­ons with­held in­for­ma­tion about other events, cit­ing pri­vacy and se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Last year, a re­cently re­leased in­mate and two ac­com­plices were con­victed of smug­gling drugs and porn into Mary­land’s Western Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion via

drone. Po­lice said sev­eral night­time mis­sions earned the three per­pe­tra­tors about $ 6,000 per drop.

“The threat posed by drones to in­tro­duce con­tra­band into prison and for other means is in­creas­ing,” said Justin Long, a spokesman for the Bureau of Pris­ons.

Long said the agency works with the De­part­ment of Jus­tice and other law en­force­ment agen­cies to de­velop coun­ter­mea­sures to keep dan­ger­ous con­tra­band out of jails, in­clud­ing those smug­gled in via drone.

Jail man­age­ment con­sul­tant Don­ald Leach said smug­glers could be dis­cour­aged by in­tro­duc­ing anti- drone jam­mers, which dis­able the sig­nals on the fly­ing ob­jects, and a dig­i­tal pro­tec­tive shield, which would alert fa­cil­i­ties to the pres­ence of nearby drones.

In the United King­dom, at least one prison has de­ployed a sys­tem that de­flects any drone that might fly over perime­ter walls by send­ing a se­ries of sen­sors to jam the drone’s com­puter and block its fre­quency, Leach said.

Leach, who worked as a jail ad­min­is­tra­tor for 25 years, said drones sneak­ing in con­tra­band pose a greater threat than other meth­ods of bring­ing banned items into jails.

“Tra­di­tion­ally, some in­mates would bribe the staff or vis­i­tors to bring drugs and other small items into jail il­le­gally by hid­ing them in body cav­i­ties,” he said. “But drones have opened up the pos­si­bil­ity of trans­port­ing much big­ger and much more lethal items like guns.”

Though the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion and some states have taken steps to re­strict drones’ ac­tiv­i­ties over sen­si­tive sites in re­cent years, Rule said more needs to be done.

“The FAA lacks the re­sources to craft and en­force laws that could ef­fec­tively man­age these risks in ev­ery town and city in the coun­try, so states and lo­cal in­put and re­sources are cru­cial,” he said.

A pend­ing Se­nate bill, the Drone Fed­er­al­ism Act, would en­cour­age lo­cal leg­is­la­tion if passed, Rule said.

“It would give states and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties the green light to be­gin adopt­ing and en­forc­ing many of their own drone laws,” he said.

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