While large companies like Amazon test drone delivery systems, inmates in jails across the country are already using 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 also reported similar incidents.
Experts say current 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.
While smuggling contraband into prison through any method violates federal law, no statute currently 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 cell phones in March 2015. Jail officials didn’t discover the transfer of illegal goods 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 issues.
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 say several nighttime missions allotted 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 is working with the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies to develop new counter-measures to keep dangerous contraband out of jails, including those smuggled in via drone.
Jail management consultant Donald Leach says smugglers could be discouraged by introducing anti-drone jammers, which disable the signals on the flying objects, and a digital protective shield, which blocks the entry of drones into the facilities by hacking into its operating system.
In the UK, at least one prison has deployed a system that deflect 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 noted.
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, etc.," he said. "But drones have opened up the possibility of transporting much bigger and much more lethal items like guns into the facilities."
While the Federal Aviation Administration and some states have taken steps to restrict drone activities over sensitive sites in the 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.”
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