Emerging Issues in Security, Facility Security, Security Hardware and Technology

Preventing Contraband, Securing Airspace: Why Prisons Need Counter-Drone Procedures

It was a brisk but otherwise unremarkable October afternoon in 1973. The inmates passed the time with a football match on the grounds of Dublin’s maximum-security Mountjoy prison. But suddenly, the jeers of the spectators were drowned out by the deafening roar of a descending helicopter. Within a matter of moments, three convicted Provisional IRA terrorists boarded the hijacked Aerospatiale Alouette II and were whisked to freedom.

Admittedly, this audacious heist wasn’t the first helicopter prison escape. But it was, without question, a highly publicized spectacle that captured the attention of the world’s media. In the years that followed, dozens of prisoners worldwide would attempt helicopter rescues, forcing prisons to develop countermeasures. France, for example, would install thick Kevlar anti-helicopter cables across the open areas of its maximum-security prisons, thereby making it impossible to land. 

Airspace has always been a weak link in any prison’s security. The proliferation of affordable consumer-grade drones illustrates this point. In the five years leading up to Sept. 20, 2021, the Scottish Prisons Service seized 10 drones, according to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It’s still not known how many drones managed to deliver their contraband before escaping.

Drones are small and quiet. Their operators can blend into the surrounding foliage, avoiding detection. One U.K. gang delivered $1.34 million worth of contraband across 49 flights before they were eventually arrested. They were only caught after stumbling into the view of field cameras installed to detect wildlife. 

It’s a low-risk, high-reward game. Contraband inside a prison is worth far more than in the free world. Drugs in prison cost several times the going rate on the street. Burner non-smartphones or even basic smartphones can cost as little as $30 online, and retail for over $250 inside. Inmates are willing to pay the steep price, as they allow continued operations of criminal enterprises while behind bars. 

Criminals have even used drones to smuggle in tools that can facilitate an escape or provide reconnaissance before a helicopter landing, as in the case of convicted French murderer Redoine Faid. Italian authorities also believe a drone was used to deliver the firearm used in the 2021 murder of an inmate by a suspected member of the Neopolitan mafia. 

Additionally, the increasing digitization of prison life has reduced the number of opportunities to smuggle contraband into correctional facilities. Physical mail and in-person visitations are increasingly being supplanted by locked-down email and video calling platforms. Examples include JPay, Smart Communications, and the U.K.’s EmailAPrisoner service. These trends—which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic—have only served to make drones an even more attractive tool for criminal gangs. 

Consumer- and commercial-grade drones are cheaper than ever, with longer battery lives and the ability to haul even larger payloads. The DJI Mavic 2, for example, can lift 830 grams worth of cargo—or nearly 1.5 times its body weight. And that isn’t even the latest version. That’s an average of four basic smartphones at one time or six burner non-smartphones.

Because drones are highly affordable and prison contraband is far cheaper on the outside, gangs can absorb the cost of failed deliveries. Seized drones are simply the cost of doing business and do not deter future attempts.

Without the assistance of counter-drone technology, prisons are unable to counter this threat. They cannot rely on the vigilance of correctional officers, no matter how talented or dedicated they are. Additionally, most prisons face chronic staffing shortages. Nearly one-third of federal prison officer roles are unfilled. In some state facilities, the number of open positions is 70%, and the turnover rate is as high as 55%.

It’s unfeasible to expect prisons to dedicate staff to the task of detecting and intercepting drones. The resources don’t exist—or, instead, are better spent on day-to-day prison operations. 

But prisons have an opportunity to limit the amount of smuggled contraband, thereby improving the safety of inmates and officers alike by deploying counter-drone technologies and training employees in their use. 

A cornerstone of any counter-drone strategy is a drone-detection platform. This was a central theme at the recent American Corrections Association conference. Drone detection solutions can provide real-time warnings of airspace incursions and distinguish between legitimate and suspected malicious drone usage. This context-based awareness is vital when you consider that prisons vary both in their design and their location.

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While many prisons are located in rural or suburban environments, others sit within the hearts of bustling cities, like New York and Chicago. It’s here where legitimate and malicious drone usage will overlap. 

Drone detection systems give correctional officers the necessary time to intercept a package before it makes its way into the prison, where it can be distributed to other prisoners or its contents consumed. With the benefit of warning, correctional officers can restrict the movement of prisoners before the drone lands or alert local police to intercept the operators. 

A computerized record of all drone-based incursions can help prisons identify patterns and preserve evidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of a conviction when a drone operator is caught.

After the infamous Mountjoy heist, prisons began taking the threat of helicopters seriously and deployed countermeasures to frustrate or prevent successful heists. Drones present a similar threat to the security of correctional facilities, and prisons must take action now. 

Counter-drone technologies are an established, proven way of minimizing the risk of malicious drone usage. These platforms are incredibly versatile and can even be used in mobile scenarios, like when transporting prisoners between facilities. 

When paired with trained staff and counter-drone SOPs (standard operating procedures), prisons can stem the flow of contraband drugs, phones, and weapons into facilities, resulting in a safer environment for inmates and employees.

Abigail Surdoval is Director of Corrections at counter-drone solutions provider Dedrone.