South Carolina busts gangs flying contraband to prison by drone

contraband prison drone

In another example of what a large and growing a problem the use of drones to smuggle contraband into prisons has become, authorities in South Carolina have arrested 20 people – in two different groups – running aerial contraband operations into the Lee Correctional Institution.

Police from the Lee County sheriff’s office, in coordination with South Carolina correctional authorities, made the busts following an eight-month investigation into the rings, which used drones to make late-night deliveries of contraband to the prison. Banned items included crack cocaine, knives, tobacco, guns, phones, and even candy. Over 20 members of the two entirely separate gangs were arrested during raids this month, with most now facing charges of dealing contraband, criminal conspiracy, and the possession of illegal drugs. 

As DroneDJ has reported in months gone by, the use of drones to fly contraband to prison grounds is a serious and spreading problem not just in the US, but across the globe. Canada is plagued by the activity, and the UK, France, and Italy are also battling a rising trend of banned substances being transported by UAVs to jails. 

The practice has similarly been on the uptick in Central and South America. In September, a pitched battle broke at a penitentiary in Ecuador when armed inmates scrambled onto a roof to shoot at a drone that had dropped an explosive charge, apparently targeting narco gang members inside.

The Lee County raids further highlight just how big the illegal aerial couriering has grown, and what kind of consequences it can have beyond the immediate problem of putting drugs and weapons into inmates’ hands.

For starters, sheriff’s raids turned up a whopping 12 drones used for deliveries, plus an array of navigational equipment to make stealthy drops onto the prison grounds. Though illegal provisioning from the skies to the jail had been occurring for several years, authorities say the operators kicked their activity into high gear last May. 

Sales and circulation of prohibited items, meanwhile, have been tied to repeated violence within the Lee Correctional Institution – including an April clash between rival groups that left seven people dead and 20 injured. Arms used in those clashes presumably arrived by air.

Another telling indicator of what an enormous challenge for authorities the airborne flow has become is the fact that the increasingly experienced pilots succeeded in making their deliveries despite the Lee Correctional Institution being equipped with an anti-drone detect-and-track system.

The rising frequency of the South Carolina flights, and size of the rings behind them, are also reflection of just how lucrative the illicit Big House shuttling has become. Thwarted missions elsewhere in North America over the past year have turned up payloads worth nearly $25,000 on prison black markets. Such illegal transport to, and trade in jails across the globe must now easily be worth millions.

“Someone’s getting paid, and they’re getting paid from… inmates from the inside,” said Lee County Sheriff Daniel Simon after the raids on the ring this month. “These large drones can carry heavier and heavier packages… Our main focus is to stop contraband from entering the institution, and especially prevent someone from getting injured in the process.”

Presumably one objective of police now will be to learn how organizers of the drops managed to avoid the facility’s anti-UAV system and share that information around. Because while apprehending perpetrators of that activity after the fact has achieved some success, beating the scourge will almost certainly rely on far more prisons deploying cutting-edge geo-fencing, detection, and mitigation technologies that can neutralize contraband-carrying drones before they can complete missions in the first place.

Photo: Larry Farr/Upslash

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