Just how booming are drone deliveries of contraband to jails across Canada? According to official estimates, UAVs are now making rounds at a rhythm of nearly one prison per day.
Not only has the frequency of such illegal aerial runs to penitentiaries surged in recent years, but officials at unions representing Canadian prison guards say the sophistication of those operations to avoid detection has also increased. Recent statistics compiled by Public Security Canada, the country’s domestic safety ministry, show the 27 reports or interceptions of drones making contraband deliveries to prisons in 2015-2016 increasing to 354 between mid-2020 and 2021. And some observers say even those figures reflect far lower activity than what’s actually going on.
“We’re clearly losing control of facilities to those trafficking (contraband) inside them,” Mathieu Lavoie, president of one of Quebec’s largest prison guard unions, told Le Journal de Québec about the drone delivery problem. “Those we intercept are just the tip of the iceberg.
If the cadence of those flights is increasing, so too is the value of payloads dropped to inmates. A single cache of tobacco, hashish, rolling papers, and lighters found after it was found on the roof of one prison building last month would have sold among convicts for what officials estimate at over $24,300. Guards say discovering bundles containing cell phones, chargers, medication, and marijuana that would fetch over $15,000 on internal penitentiary markets is no longer a rarity. Earlier this year, officials turned up fighting knives and brass knuckles during cell searches they believe came via UAVs.
Organizers of the illegal drone deliveries have also gotten foxier in upping the odds that transported contraband makes it inside prisons. For example, Lavoie says guards at one facility spotted five different UAVs making flights in the same night. Astonishingly, four of those converged on the prison at the same time.
“At times there are several drones at once to create a diversion,” Lavoie says of the rising and increasingly audacious drone delivery problem. “It’s a scourge that’s been building for the past four years, principally in the prisons of Montréal, where it’s occurring nearly every day… Now we see it in that rest of the provinces.”
In cases where penitentiaries have used low-tech methods of stringing rope netting over open areas to thwart drops, operators have come up with equally artisanal ways around those obstacles. In at least one incident, guards recovered a large soda bottle with razor blades shoved into the mouth. The pilot then dragged the device hung below the drone to cut holes in the nets, through which the illicit payload was dropped.
But operators of flights are going high-tech, too. Some vehicles recovered after deliveries of contraband to prisons were thwarted were equipped with thermal sensor or precise positioning gadgets to make drops in precise, difficult to see places. When news leaked that some penitentiaries had given guards devices to detect drones, organizers discovered which types of UAV escaped those and deployed them in response.
The only possible solution to the traffic, Lavoie argues, is for sophisticated, 3D drone detection and neutralization systems to be installed at every Canadian prison. Penitentiary authorities have agreed to do just that, but the initial target date this month to have those operating has been pushed back to mid-2022.
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