A troubling new development in prison security was recently made aware of law enforcement officials in Ohio. In June 2019, a drone was used to deliver contraband to a prisoner inside the Cuyahoga County Jail, a facility that has seen more than its share of negative news in recent months. Deliveries to prisoners are only one of the security challenges these electronic devices represent, and the prison industry is scrambling to find solutions to both protect communities as well as to eliminate in-prison incidents.

Drone Delivery in Cuyahoga County

Sometime between June 22 and June 25, 2019, a drone was captured on prison yard surveillance cameras making delivery of what appeared to be drugs to an inmate within the Cuyahoga County Jail. The prison facility, located in the town of Euclid, about 10 miles north of downtown Cleveland, has been plagued with complaints about prison conditions, including abuse of prisoners and several suspicious deaths of inmates in the facility. In 2018 alone, six inmates died in the facility. Investigators say that at least some of the deaths can be attributed to unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the prison.

In video surveillance, several inmates were setting up what appeared to be the game of cornhole. One inmate pauses, looking up to the sky, before nearly tripping over one of the game boards as a package falls just beyond his grasp. After coming to rest on the ground, the package is quickly retrieved by the inmate, who wraps an orange prison-issued shirt around the package before walking out of view of the surveillance camera. At the time of the delivery, prison officials were not aware that a drone was used, and only learned about it when reviewing footage from the cameras. Investigators eventually pinpointed the contraband itself by interviewing inmates visible in the footage. The incident is still under investigation.

A Growing Problem in America’s Prisons

Drones have been used in record numbers to violate the security of America’s prisons. Dozens of such electronic flying devices have been spotted near one prison in Virginia called the Buckingham Correctional Center, where officials have indicated that drones have been used to deliver drugs, cellphones, and dangerous weapons to inmates.

Deliveries of contraband are not the only security breach these devices represent. Drones may also be used to:

  • Identify weak areas of perimeter security, including visibility around guard towers, shift changes, and locations of guards at any given time.
  • Identify prison officials, security personnel, and individual inmates.
  • Distract security guards away from other incidents, such as impending riots, drug exchanges, or other criminal activity within the walls and grounds of prisons.

Eventually, it is feared that high-capacity drones may be used to help prisoners escape from custody. A drone capable of lifting a 200-300 lb. payload could easily be repurposed for escape, especially as these devices are operated remotely and may be difficult to track.

While drone operators are required to obtain permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), contraband drones exist by the thousands, not only in the U.S. but in communities around the world. In England, for example, drones have been used to deliver hundreds of packages to prison inmates, putting inmates’ lives and health at risk.

Currently, FAA regulations only bans the operation of drones in airspaces over and surrounding federal prisons; there is no such protection for the airspace around local and state corrections facilities. Until sweeping legislation occurs to curtail drone use around prisons in the United States, the use of drones to deliver contraband and to pinpoint security weaknesses will continue to grow.

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