‘This is a war’: Drone-delivered contraband on the rise in South Carolina prisons
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The fight against contraband isn’t a new one for the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
But criminals are taking to the skies using drones to deliver drugs, tobacco, lighters, weapons, and even gaming devices.
Director Bryan Stirling says it’s an issue he won’t just let fly.
“This is a war,” Stirling said. “Trying to stop them from bringing this contraband in, it’s a constant battle. It’s daily for us but it’s something that we take very seriously.”
Stirling recalls the first time a drone flew into a South Carolina prison airspace around 2017 as an “aha” moment.
“I was shocked but I guess I shouldn’t have been,” he said.
It’s not the first time some creativity was used for contraband deliveries.
“They’ve used potato guns to shoot stuff into the yards, things of that nature, and they’ll try to hide it like if it’s a soccer ball or something, they’ll make it look like a rock, you know, they’ll put glue on there, put dirt and grass and everything.” Sitrling said.
In 2013, Stirling noticed this and inspired by golf facilities, ensured tall golf netting was put up.
A move he believed cut down on throwovers.
The Department of Corrections spent about $8 million putting those up, according to an audit by the Legislative Audit Committee in 2019.
But drones can fly hundreds of feet in the air, above and beyond those nets.
Not only that, but over the years, drone “attacks” have become a “sophisticated” operation within the contraband industry, according to Stirling. He likens it to a military or paramilitary operation.
“They’ll send a decoy in, and we’ll chase that decoy because we have systems in place that alert us to drones in the area, and we’ll chase that and then they send two in from another side, drop their load and take off,” he explained.
The prisons are restricted airspaces, but jailbreaking or hacking into a device’s system can be learned by a simple internet search which results in hundreds of thousands of videos and blog posts.
Packages often contain tobacco, weed, cellphones, chargers and lighters, but administrators have seen everything from nintendo switches to gold teeth.
Live 5 Investigates saw first-hand the collection of confiscated contraband from just the last few months, worth more than an estimated $250,000.
But for every package caught prison officials believe there’s so much more where that came from.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Stirling said. “And that’s a problem.”
By the numbers
Since 2017, the department has recorded 424 drone sightings.
Drone drops have increased significantly over the years, with just 29 recorded in 2017 to 166 last year.
Most are happening in the Lowcountry facilities.
In 2021, Lieber Correctional in Dorchester County recorded the most at 45. Ridgeland in Jasper County came in second at 34 sightings.
The Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars outfitting its 21 institutions with technology to stop the flow of illegal items.
Full body scanners, similar to the ones at airports, at entrances cost about $3.6 million.
As previously mentioned, 50 foot high golf netting cost $8.3 million.
And drone detection technology? Another $240,440.
But the prisons don’t have the authority to shoot or take down the devices by any means.
If convicted, an offender who delivers or attempts to deliver contraband could face a fine of up to $10,000 and 10 years in prison.
The same goes for inmates caught in possession of contraband.
Circling back to cellphones
Stirling says the common thread is cellphones.
He argues they can be used inside prison walls to coordinate drone drops and in part enable drones to operate.
The Department of Corrections has been working to overturn a Federal Communications Commission regulation that prevents the state agency from jamming cell phones.
“They have fought us every step of the way on jamming, and it’s very disappointing but we need congress to act,” Stirling said.
According to the FCC, “The use of a phone jammer, GPS blocker, or other signal jamming device designed to intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications is a violation of federal law.”
This is because interference could prevent emergency calls and thus put public safety at risk.
“We’ve been pushing and pushing. We’ve met with the FCC, they’ve had a hearing, they’ve had a field hearing, they’ve seen the problem. They tell me that they cannot allow us to jam, that would be illegal, federal prisons can but states cannot and that makes no sense to me,” Stirling said.
Even as recently as this week, Captain Robert Johnson, who survived a hit on his life coordinated via illegal cellphones by inmates at Lee Correctional, joined Stirling and others within the Correctional Leaders Association Washington, D.C. to continue to push the issue.
In 2019, the Cell Phone Jamming Reform Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate and co-sponsored by republican senator Lindsey Graham, but no actions have been taken on the legislation since.
A compromised, legal solution is currently in use at Lee Correctional Institution called Management Access Systems.
It requires a list of approved cell phones that should be able to connect to the signal.
“We’ve really had mixed results with that. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t if that worked every prison system in the country would have that,” Stirling said.
Stirling says he’s hopeful that the department of corrections may soon be able to identify illegal cellphones inside the prisons, and have them added to the stolen phone database, which would then make them null.
Another compromise with the FCC.
“The hope and goal is with this system…they will eventually buy a phone that costs several thousand dollars. Well if that phone is shut down and no better than a brick the next phone, you know, supply and demand is going to cost several thousand more and then eventually they will not be able to afford the phones and we’ll be able to shut them down,” Stirling said.
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