As long as prisons have existed, inmates and their free-world buddies have been trying to smuggle things inside. You can understand the impulse: In the land of homemade rot-gut liquor and exorbitant prices for phone calls, the man with marijuana and a cellphone is king. But it’s not always easy getting these goods inside. Traditional smuggling strategies, like having visitors conceal contraband inside body cavities or hollowed-out loaves of bread, are by no means foolproof. Not only does the smuggler risk injury or embarrassment, but he risks getting caught and going to jail, where he will then have to rely on someone else to play the hollowed-out-loaves-of-bread game. There’s got to be a better way!
For some enterprising prison smugglers, there is a better way, and it’s drones. Over the past few years, inmates and their allies have been using small consumer drones as tools to get contraband material—cellphones, narcotics, and the like—over the walls from a distance. Smugglers will pilot the drone over the prison walls under cover of darkness, deliver the payload, and leave it there to be retrieved. Take that, hollowed-out loaves of bread!
Prison officials across the country are struggling to combat this new method of smuggling. Anthony Cuthbertson at Newsweek recently wrote about Thaddeus Shortz, a Maryland man who was just convicted of “attempting to use a drone to smuggle drugs, pornography, tobacco and a cellphone into a maximum security prison.” Shortz reportedly called the scheme a “gold mine.” Farther south, Randy Travis at Fox 5 Atlanta reports that staffers at Georgia prisons have been beset by drones dropping phones into prison grounds at night:
A security video obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team showed a drone flying over the fence line at Calhoun State Prison one night in 2013. Dangling on a rope below, authorities believed, was a cache of cellphones. They surmised that a corrupt guard usually pops a door for the inmate to run outside the yard, collect their phones and return to their cell, the timing coordinated with an already smuggled cellphone.
I don’t doubt that corrections officials are having trouble finding ways to stop drone smuggling. Drones are small, and nighttime is dark, and it’s hard to spot small flying things in the dark, unless you are wearing night-vision goggles or are an owl. But the Fox 5 Atlanta report points at the bigger issue here. While drone smuggling is new and definitely something for prison officials to worry about and try to counteract, the real problem with prison smuggling—as always—is still underpaid, unstable guards who are willing to be bribed. The failure point in the Atlanta case isn’t the drone going over the wall—it’s the corrupt guard opening the door for the inmate to go and retrieve the payload.
I mentioned the Maryland drone-smuggling story in order to draw comparisons with another non-drone-based Maryland smuggling scheme that makes Shortz’s “gold mine” seem like a big ol’ pot of mud. In 2013, I wrote about a Baltimore gang called the Black Guerrilla Family, which had effectively taken control of the Baltimore City Detention Center thanks to its skill at suborning the guards there. Gang members would target female COs who fit a particular profile: “low self-esteem, insecurities, and certain physical attributes,” according to an affidavit in a federal case against gang members. The gang members would offer male COs money, in certain cases allegedly as much as $3,000–$5,000 per week. Once the guards had been turned, then the BGF could count on their cooperation for years; the aforementioned affidavit alleged that “one CO inserted an ounce of marijuana into her vagina every day before work for a period of several years and also carried a pouch of tobacco or Percoset [sic] pills concealed in her underwear.”
From an order-maintenance standpoint, a single drone going over a wall with a rope of cellphones in its robotic clutches is not as worrisome as a group of guards stuffing pills inside their underwear every single day for years; or someone like Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, the Clinton Correctional Facility employee who befriended the convicts David Sweat and Richard Matt, carrying escape tools inside, over and over again, for a matter of months. Drones might be a brand-new front in the fight against prison smuggling. But prisons will always have to focus on identifying and preventing employee corruption if they hope to win the war.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.