Over the Wire: Prison Guards Handcuffed in Battle With Drones
Like firefighters and those who just want to relax in the privacy of their own backyards, U.S. prisons have a drone problem.
Guards at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., recently found 17 illegal cellphones in one inmate’s cell — all of them (according to a report in the New York Times) smuggled in using drones.
In Mansfield, Ohio, a drone delivery of tobacco and drugs caused a near riot in a prison yard as inmates fought over the payload. In Cumberland, Md., officers had better luck, arresting two men in a car outside the Maryland state prison there. In the car were tobacco, pornography, and drugs — and a drone.
Similar reports have come in from Oklahoma and Georgia, as well as places outside the U.S., including Canada and Russia.
Breaking into jail
The point is that these unmanned aircraft systems are clearly capable of delivering contraband over prison walls. Furthermore, it’s hard to spot them, much less find out who is controlling them.
Worse, when it comes to policing the problem at federal prisons, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BoP) is severely handcuffed. Despite having tons of shotgun-armed guards at its prisons, the bureau can’t simply shoot down any drone that happens to appear near a prison; the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t allow it.
Guards can’t blast drones with radio waves to interfere with the control signals from their operators either: Intentional interference of that sort is illegal, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
All of which is why the BoP has issued an RFI (request for information) looking for a solution.
The RFI — a preliminary step before the agency actually hires someone to implement a solution — is soliciting ideas that will help the BoP detect and neutralize drones trying either to conduct surveillance of prisons and the areas around them or to deliver contraband (such as weapons, drugs, or pornography).
(While the BoP has jurisdiction over federal prisons only, the solutions it finds should also be available eventually to state and local facilities.)
Unfortunately for the BoP, other federal government agencies aren’t being particularly helpful. The FAA would not discuss the issue, except to say that if anyone were to drop something into a prison, that person would be guilty of violating the law. The Department of Justice would not discuss the issue of drones on the record, except to say that Yahoo Tech should contact the FAA. The FCC did not respond to requests for comments.
Complicating matters, the BoP’s RFI seems to be attracting little interest. So far, only one question has been posted regarding the issue, and that was to find out whether the BoP will fund research. (It won’t.)
Detection and registration
Still, the agency does have some options. The law does not prohibit the deployment of sensors at prisons to alert guards that a drone is approaching. Nor does it prohibit sensors that would detect a drone launch at its source. This could allow law enforcement to get to the site of the drone launch and arrest those involved.
And, it should be stated, sending a drone into a prison does violate a long list of federal laws and, if it’s a state prison, state laws as well...
Good read all in all. I spent a year as a jail supervisor and we never had this issue to deal with because we did not have an outside area for the inmates. The only times they saw outside was when they entered and left the facility. Not much of an issue for the county prison but defiantly can be something for Texas Department of Corrections. Then again they can ask the locals for a little help, "Hey, you keep what you kill, no limit, we'll lose you in the pursuit..." :<)