On August 26, 2019, at 1:30 am in rural Georgia, two men stopped a car 100 yards away from Telfair State Prison, a closed-custody facility that backs into a forest of cypresses and oaks. Inside a duffel bag, the men had a 1.9-pound Storm Drone 4, a Radio Link UAS controller, a Spektrum video monitor with DVR headset, 75 grams of loose tobacco, four rounds of loose ammunition, and 14 cell phones.
Their plan, plotted out for over a month, was simple: To fly the drone over the prison’s walls, where it would drop the payload and soar off, undetected, into the night. But when they switched off the car lights, they caught the attention of deputies from the Telfair County Sheriff’s office stationed nearby.
One of the deputies approached the vehicle to question the driver, who told him he was with two other men. Later identified as Nicolas Lo and Cheikh Hassane Toure, the men, who had fled to the woods, were taken into custody, and later indicted in the US District Court on grand jury charges for a plot to smuggle contraband into the prison. They were sentenced to 12 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to their roles in the scheme.
Lo and Toure were two of the first US federal prosecutions of noncommercial aircraft pilots for the charge of “serving or attempting to serve as an airman without an airman’s certificate,” a violation of Title 49 of US code, which requires anyone operating an unmanned aircraft “for compensation or hire” to hold the certificate.
Nicholas’ brother George Lo, who had agreed in one of 42 recorded phone calls from the prison (where he was serving a state sentence for armed robbery) to pay “four bands”—or $4,000—for the contraband and delivery fee, also pleaded guilty.
He admitted to “owning an unregistered drone that was operated, attempted to be operated, or allowed to be operated by another person,” violating a federal law that requires owners of uncrewed aircraft weighing 0.55 pounds or more to register their drones prior to flight. George Lo was also charged with a 12-month sentence on top of previous convictions, amounting to a 175-year term.
These prosecutions speak to a broader federal effort to crack down on an escalating number of drone contraband drops that have drawn the attention of the US Department of Justice, the European Commission’s counterterrorism unit, and Interpol, and that are worrying prison officials, politicians, and law enforcement agents around the globe.
Drones are dropping drugs and cell phones in prison yards. They’re brazenly dangling contraband from fishing lines in front of smashed prison windows or crashing into recreational areas, sometimes midday. They’ve dropped wire cutters used in bold prison escapes involving body doubles and leading to manhunts. They’ve sparked prison riots, crash landed on an elementary school roof, and supplied weapons like ceramic knives, scissors, and guns (perhaps even to the Italian Mafia) that put inmates and correctional officers at heightened risk.
France’s justice minister speculates they were used before the helicopter escape of murder convict Redoine Faid to run reconnaissance on the grounds of Reau Prison, in the south of Paris. And in one of the more astounding examples, UK law enforcement prosecuted a drone gang for a two-year plot coordinated across at least five prisons and involving 49 illegal drone flights and contraband worth up to $1.34 million—a plot that only came to light because field cameras set up to record wildlife tipped off police, the BBC reported.
Arguably, one of the biggest threats posed by drones is the cell phones they’re delivering, devices that can be worth several thousand dollars inside prisons, where they allow inmates to maintain vast criminal enterprises on the internet, says Cain Smith, a city attorney for Statesboro, Georgia, who represented Nicolas Lo in the case.
A 2016 grand jury indictment in the Southern District of Georgia suggests just how elaborate these schemes can be. Daniel Roger Alo, who goes by the street aliases “Marco Polo,” “Boss Man,” “Lo,” and “Uh No,” allegedly led a drug ring that smuggled cell phones into a Georgia prison and used them, along with PayPal accounts, Green Dot prepaid cards, and Western Union money transfers to coordinate methamphetamine distribution across Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Drones delivered the cell phones, but the meth never entered the prison: It was being sold outside, the indictment charges, by an unlikely confederation of gangs and drug cartels.
“What’s interesting about the gang affiliation is just the breadth of them,” says Smith, who represented one of the midlevel conspirators, a man named Oronde Pender, in the case. “I mean, you’re talking Bloods, Gangster Disciples, which are African American gangs, Ghostface Gangsters [who are primarily white supremacists], and the Sinaloa Cartel, which is, obviously, an international Mexican cartel. It just shows how interconnected, though ideologically opposed, a lot of these gangs are, acting in concert to further the distribution of methamphetamines.”
The methamphetamine distribution plot is far more sophisticated than the Telfair County escapade, what Smith calls “amateur backwoods Georgia pines shit.” They share the intent of eluding security and distancing perpetrators from their crimes. Ranging from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 or more, drones by manufacturers like DJI, Autel, and Parrot are capable of flying 400 feet above ground, a half-mile or more from their operators (depending on weather, weight, and battery life), while carrying payloads of up to 15 pounds, says Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
Prisons, generally speaking, weren’t designed to defend against such threats. “Since the time of castles and moats we’ve had to deal with two-dimensional perimeter protection,” says Mary-Lou Smulders, chief marketing officer at the counterdrone company Dedrone. “We built fences, we built moats, we put guards around the outside. This is sort of a new threat vector for the same issues that people have had … Only now you’ve got a $1,500 drone that a 10-year-old can pull out of the box and fly.”
It’s not children who are committing these heists, of course. It’s people running jobs on the inside and the outside. Internet-connected cell phones and electronic money transfers through Green Dot prepaid cards, or mobile payment services like Cash App—often with an advance cut to outside conspirators who receive the balance on delivery–make them much easier to coordinate.
“Frankly, prisoners for the longest time were inward looking,” says Stirling. “All of a sudden, smuggling contraband became very lucrative for folks smuggling it from the outside, and also for prisoners and prison gangs to distribute drugs and contraband inside.”
If the yard is dry, a pound of tobacco product can go for anywhere from $800 to $4,000, a flip phone for about $1,500, and an Android or iPhone for up to $3,000, says Daniel Simon, a major at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office of South Carolina. And the shadow market for drone contraband appears to be growing. In South Carolina, facilities have recorded 424 drone sightings since 2017 and seen contraband drops increase dramatically over the years, with 29 recorded in 2017, 166 in 2021, and 108 through May of this year.
Jeffrey Wilkins, the president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says in the 49 institutions the union represents drones are seen, or detected by radar systems, daily. Medium security facilities with operable windows and easily punctured mesh screens are more or less tollbooths. “The technology is so advanced that they can nearly GPS the thing right to their cell window. They just reach out of their cell windows and take it from the drones.”
Once inside, drugs and weapons are sparking routine outbreaks of violence between inmates and against correctional officers. About twice weekly, Wilkins told me, a national monitoring center receives a call from a prison where a correctional officer can’t finish a shift because of an injury that requires medical attention.
“The different kinds of weapons that we’re seeing now are things that we’ve never seen before, like ceramic blades, knives, brass knuckles,” Wilkins says. “The amount of drugs that have been seized is just incredible.”
According to data from the Correctional Service of Canada that Wilkins shared with WIRED, out of approximately 12,000 inmates in medium and maximum security institutions, assault incidents rose 9.6 percent from April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, and jumped a staggering 185 percent in structured intervention units that house inmates more secluded from the general population. Meanwhile, seizures of cell phones, calling cards, cell phone chargers, and SIM cards across all institutions rose from roughly 100 to 1,100 between 2017 and 2021.
The growing severity of the problem, in the US and internationally, is likely part of the reason Judge Dudley Bowen of the Southern District of Georgia sentenced Lo and Toure to twelve-month prison terms, over the advisory guidelines of their plea agreements.
“What’s important for others to know,” he says at Toure’s sentencing hearing, “is that on the one hand, if I try to get nine or ten cell phones inside the prison, I’ll just get probation for three years, maybe have to go down to the Salvation Army and make up some beds or something like that. Or, if I try to do that very same thing, it looks like my option is going to be federal prison.”
Conveniently, in this instance, the perpetrators were not especially discreet, Estes says. Calls over a recorded prison line described incriminating details of the plot: a screenshot of a Google Maps image of the target location, practice flights, dates and times of aborted trips, the installation of an aftermarket release device, and plans for electronic money exchange. But if those same calls had been made over a smuggled-in cell phone, they may not have been detected at all.
Jurisdictional boundaries in legal authority made the offense procedurally difficult to prosecute—which is part of the reason the charges appear so flimsy. The act of smuggling contraband into a US state facility is not a federal offense, possessing tobacco or cell phones outside a prison is not illegal, and although federal prisons are regulated by Federal Aviation Administration no-fly zones, only a handful of US states and municipalities have laws against flying drones over state, county, and local correctional institutions. While Georgia law requires a penalty of one to five years in prison for any contraband delivery to prison, delivering contraband to a state prison is not a federal crime—hence, the rather circuitous drone charges.
“These are not easy cases,” Estes says. “It’s the issue of proof that makes them difficult.”
In the absence of stiff federal deterrents for attempted drone deliveries to state institutions, many correctional institutions are turning to counterdrone technologies to try to catch drones and their operators in the act, but these are “no silver bullet,” says Casey Flanagan, a former technician for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counter UAS program, who, in May, founded his own counterdrone consulting and training company, AeroVigilance.
Citing a study from the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, Flanagan says more than 200 systems, produced by 155 counterdrone manufacturers in 33 countries around the world, use a mix of technologies—electro-optical and infrared cameras, radar units, radio frequency, and acoustic sensors—to identify and track drones.
But each has its own shortcomings. Cameras don’t work well in dense urban areas with a limited sight range. Radar systems are often binary and can mistake a bird for a drone. Radio frequency detection units that operate on 2.4- and 5.8-GHz bands, the same signal frequencies used by Wi-Fi technologies, can misidentify drones for other devices. Geofences only stop drones they are programmed to recognize.
Plus, counterdrone systems are expensive. In South Carolina, after an $8 million investment in golf netting at state facilities proved largely ineffective against drones, the department invested an additional $240,000 in drone detection systems, which add to a fleet of drones equipped with high resolution cameras and infrared technology that pilots use to conduct surveillance over the state's 21 institutions.
Smulders says the company’s counterdrone technology, active at 50 prisons around the world, addresses many of these technical limitations, with a multilayered system capable of tracking the radio frequency signals of 200 drone models. Sensors triangulated at strategic locations on prison grounds detect, identify, and locate drones over the airspace. Machine learning helps analyze patterns—incursion locations, time of day, flight paths.
“Everybody can do the basics of what we do: You can identify what kind of drone it is,” Smulders says. “Is it a good guy drone or a bad guy drone? Is it, you know, a DJI Mavic 2, or whatever it is? And that gives you indications around the payload and speed and range. You can track where the pilot is, where the drone is going, where it is now, and where it’s been as long as you’re doing it in a legal way.”
Alerts sent to computers in the security operations center of a prison or the mobile phones of corrections officers provide “situational awareness,” Smulders says. Prison operators can lock down a yard, ordering prisoners to their cells, so that correction officers can recover dropped contraband and prevent fights, such as the one that broke out at Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio. In some instances, information stored on seized drones—GPS data, images, serial numbers—can be used to track down pilots.
What prisons can’t do, however, at least in the United States, is shoot down drones, use a projectile or a net to capture them, or break the radio frequency link between the drone and its controller by jamming or spoofing the signals. Federal laws, such as the Pen/Trap Statute and Wiretap Act, and statutes that give the Federal Aviation Administration authority over airspace, limit the use of mitigation technologies to four agencies: the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy.
These laws effectively tie the hands of prison authorities at state facilities, Stirling says. When a detection system sends an alert to a security operations center or mobile device that a drone is within a half-mile of the prison, they can lock down the recreation yard, sending inmates to their cells while they search the grounds for fallen drones. But they can do little else to stop them. “Our technology is kind of like a beta model, a fire alarm versus a fire extinguisher or sprinkler system,” Stirling says.
The US is not an outlier when it comes to its restrictive counterdrone laws, but it does lag behind several countries when it comes to the adoption of signal jamming, says Lars Huybrechts, a chief inspector for the Belgian Federal Police and directorate-general of migration and home affairs for the European Commission. France allows police to use jammers, Romania does not, and Belgium is considering laws that would allow police to use jamming in certain instances, such as when demining an improvised explosive device.
“Many prisons already have certain jamming in place, but it’s mostly for cell phones and very limited, of course, to a small range,”’Huybrechts says. “I see them quickly building up to probably drone jamming, if it’s allowed.”
Back in the US, the White House recently announced a Domestic Counter-UAS National Action Plan that Smulders says appears to signal a national policy shift toward a more aggressive counterdrone posture. If adopted by Congress, the recommendations would clarify standards of legal and illegal drone use and stiffen criminal penalties to deter illegal drone surveillance and assaults. Crucially, it would enact a pilot program to allow selected law enforcement agencies to mitigate malicious drone use.
“So if you see a drone coming that is carrying a pouch, or has some kind of payload, before it gets over the yard and either kamikaze-land itself and give itself to God or release its payload, you would be allowed to mitigate. Take it down,” Smulders said.
At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing a measure that would allow state prison officials to capture the 15- to-17-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity of contraband cell phones and send that data to mobile carriers, who could shut them down.
These are the kind of policy shifts Stirling—who advocated for cell signal jamming in a 2017 FCC hearing—would like to see move forward. Until then, Sheriff Simon may be dealing with swarming drones and suspicious activity outside Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, the way he has in the past: by sending deputies on nighttime perimeter patrols to surveil the grounds and, in some cases, calling on a pair of sniffing bloodhounds to chase suspects deep into the woods.
“As long as they’ve got cell phones they can utilize without being jammed, it’s going to be business as usual, operating their enterprises from where there are,” Simon says. “I am so afraid they are going to get some weapons in there, and what goes in will come out. My fear is they may be planning a mass exit or breakout.”
Updated 8/3/2022 11:00 ET: This piece has been updated to correct the name ofLee County Sheriff Daniel Simon. It has also been updated to say that $8m was used for a drone detection system across the entire prison system of South Carolina, not just in Lee Correctional.
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