On April 21, prison guards at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina were doing a routine perimeter check when they came across a tiny drone in the bushes just outside the prison's 12-foot-tall fence. Attached to the drone were cell phones, marijuana, tobacco, and synthetic weed.
South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman Stephanie Givens told VICE News it’s the first time the state has confirmed an attempt at drone smuggling.
“We have what we call rovers that constantly drive around the perimeter checking for throw-overs — that’s how contraband often gets in,” Givens told VICE News, adding that the most common items thrown over the fence are tobacco and cell phones. “From what we can piece together, [the perpetrators] were attaching these packages to the drone and trying to get it over.”
Police arrested 28-year-old Brenton Lee Doyle in June. According to the warrants served, evidence and witnesses had named Doyle in the “crime of attempting to smuggle contraband” into the prison. Doyle is currently out on bail and awaiting a September hearing.
'You can’t just throw a net up over the top of the prison.'
But Doyle’s lawyer, Wayne Floyd, told VICE News that the warrant never mentioned anything about a drone. “I really just heard about this drone thing, like, yesterday," Floyd said. “My client denies it and says he’s never had a drone. He wouldn’t know where to get a drone. He has no friends or acquaintances in the prison either.”
According to Floyd, one warrant accused Doyle of smuggling contraband, though it didn’t say how. The second accused him of possessing controlled substances of “Schedule I, II, or III” that may or may not have included flunitrazepam — otherwise known as roofies.
It’s odd that roofies are the only drug specifically named in the warrant, since DOC announced marijuana was found on the prison perimeter. According to his lawyer, Doyle wasn’t arrested until June — even though the warrants were dated April — and did not have any drugs on his person when arrested.
Givens said she was not aware whether roofies were part of the drone packages but would check with investigators.
Investigators released a Crime Stoppers Report in the search for a second suspect, who Givens said was linked to the drone by evidence. The suspect also appeared on security cameras buying some of the found items at a convenience store.
Although this was the first known drone smuggling attempt in South Carolina, drones are being used more and more often in attempts to smuggle contraband into prisons all over the world. In November, four people were charged with attempting to smuggle contraband into Calhoun State prison in Georgia. Prison guards saw a drone flying over the gates and sent out a search party. The suspects were later found in a car with a drone and a rolled-up packet containing one or two pounds of tobacco.
That same month, witnesses at Quebec’s Hull jail saw a drone buzz over its walls, sending guards into a panicked search. In Canada, drone smuggling is now a regular and frequent occurrence.
"This sort of thing happens often in prisons all across Quebec," Stephane Lemaire, president of Quebec's correctional officers' union, told the Ottawa Sun. "Usually the drones are carrying small packages of drugs or other illicit substances." The problem, Lemaire added, is that "the drone can be controlled from more than a kilometer away, and the [Hull] prison is surrounded by forest."
This past March, a man was arrested for using a quadcopter drone to try and smuggle drugs into a Melbourne, Australia prison.
VICE News requested data on drone smuggling from the Bureau of Justice, but did not get an immediate response.
So what are prisons doing to try and stop goodies from raining down from the sky into the hands of inmates? Givens told VICE News there’s no simple solution.
“You can’t just throw a net up over the top [of the prison]," she said.
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara
Photo via Flickr