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Prisons work to keep out drug-smuggling drones

A "No Trespassing" sign hangs outside the Handlon Correction Facility.
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio
A "No Trespassing" sign hangs outside the Handlon Correction Facility.

Drone technology is quickly becoming more sophisticated and affordable. While that's great for people who want a drone under the Christmas tree - it's a nightmare for prison officials. 

Criminals are using drones to try to smuggle in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband.

Chris Gautz of the Michigan Department of Corrections stands on a rural road in Ionia. On one side is a small farm with a barn. On the other, the Handlon Correctional Facility.

Gautz says two workers came into the yard of the facility on August 17th, early in the morning, and heard a strange sound.

It was a drone.

“When they went to go investigate and saw the drone drop a package of contraband near one of the housing units,” says Gautz.

Inside the package: cell phones, cigarettes, marijuana, and razor blades.

Now, the three men operating the drone weren't exactly criminal masterminds. They only used the drone's GPS, and not the camera, so they couldn't see officers running pell mell towards the package.

“As the staff started to congregate, the drone came back and literally dropped another piece of contraband right near them,” recalls Gautz.

That second package gave corrections officers and local police all the time they needed to nab the guys, who'd tried to hide the drone in the barn across the road.

The barn where three men were operating a drone to drop contraband goods in the prison across the road.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The barn where three men were operating a drone to drop contraband goods in the prison across the road.

They're in jail, awaiting trial, and if they're found guilty they'll be on the inside, not the outside, of this very prison.

While their ineptitude may be humorous, Gautz says every incident presents a potential threat.

“We have to blow the siren, we have to bring every prisoner from outside, lock them in, do an emergency count, we go out, we have to sweep the yard,” he said.

Incidents like this are increasingly common. Drones have been spotted dropping contraband into prisons in more than a dozen states.

Matt Scassero is Director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Test Site.

“It's easy to do," he says. "It's hard to do well.”

On the other hand, Scassero says, if you do know what you're doing, it's becoming easier to avoid getting caught. Drones now have such a long range, you don't have to be next to a prison to fly contraband to your buddy on the inside. You could be 20 miles away.

“You could design a system that is totally autonomous, that you say go and shut down the RF link and there's no transmission between the aircraft and the ground station,” says Scassero.

As you'd expect, experts are working to stay one step ahead. Scassero says companies are designing audio, radar and laser systems to detect drones, along with technology to disable or intercept drones.

The best solution would be to jam the radio frequencies that drones use. That could keep them completely out of a prison's airspace.

But there are some big problems to overcome there. Jamming could interfere with the bandwidths used by other aircraft or communications systems which is why it's hard to get special permission from the FCC to do it.

Michael Ziegler is the Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Corrections in Maryland.

"Our biggest concern is flying weapons in," he says. "You get a gun inside a facility, that's a nightmare."

His department just got emergency funding to evaluate drone detection systems after contraband got into some state prisons via drone.

But Ziegler says the problem is complex, and permanent.

“This game of drones is a game that constantly changes and it continues to get more sophisticated and more sophisticated as time goes on,” says Ziegler.

Maryland is expected to install drone detections systems in its prisons within in a year or two.

Experts say it likely won't be long before drone detection is a standard security feature at state and federal prisons all across the country.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.