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Smugglers use drones to deliver contraband to prisoners

by: Jason Stoogenke, WSOCTV.com Updated:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As drones become more accessible, Channel 9 has learned that more smugglers are using them to sneak contraband into prisons.

Inmates are able to receive phones to order hits on witnesses or rivals, and to keep running criminal organizations. They can also get weapons from the drones.

Even a small drone is fairly noisy, so it may seem far-fetched that criminals can pull this off without guards finding out. But smugglers and inmates know the lay of the land and they’re finding that window of opportunity when no one's watching.

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Drones have been spotted at multiple prisons in North Carolina and South Carolina, even the two that house death row inmates: Central Prison in Raleigh and Lieber Correctional near Charleston.

Action 9 investigator Jason Stoogenke went to Raleigh to interview Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of North Carolina's prison system.

"It is a major issue," said Lassiter. "The contraband concept is really at a totally different level with a drone because they can bring in anything they really choose to, undetected."

Stoogenke also visited Columbia to interview Bryan Stirling, director of South Carolina's prison system.

"I am angry and I am frustrated," said Stirling. "There's no good reason to be flying a drone over a correctional institution."

One of the first cases to make national headlines took place in 2014, about 80 miles from Charlotte, at Lee Correctional in Bishopville, South Carolina.

Investigators said that Brenton Doyle set up base in the woods, launched a drone, and tried to drop contraband over the fence. But the drone hit a wire and crashed.

Most common contraband drone deliveries:

  • Cellphones
  • Cigarettes
  • Marijuana
  • Weapons

Erich Bean, a prosecutor in Maryland, won one of first drone delivery cases in the country.

He believes Thaddeus Shortz had made four successful deliveries before investigators finally caught him about to make $30,000 by delivering synthetic marijuana, loose tobacco, rolling papers, pornography and at least one cellphone to maximum-security Western Correctional in 2015.

"I had never stopped to think of something like this so it was so unique," Bean told Channel 9. "It's surprisingly simple."

How these schemes work:

  • Drone operator smuggles a cellphone into the prison for an inmate early on
  • Other prisoners then place their orders with that inmate, and he passes them on to the drone operator
  • The inmates ask their loved ones outside the prison to pay the drone operator, some even use PayPal
  • The inmate gets a commission, usually 10 percent
  • The drone operator collects the items for the inmates
  • The inmate tells the drone operator when and where to drop the items so the guards and cameras don't see
  • The drone operator hides near the prison, flies the drone and makes the delivery
  • The drone operator even labels the packages so the inmate can distribute them quickly, without having to open them first

North Carolina would like to buy the technology to detect drones, but it's pricey -- as much as $1 million for each prison, and there are 55 in the state.

South Carolina is considering a new law that would make it illegal to fly a drone over a prison for any reason. The lawmaker behind it is Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who represents part of Lancaster County.

"Somebody could die because of this,” Sheheen said. “You know, if you had a drone deliver a weapon into a prison, you'd have a real problem."

The bill has already passed the Senate and is on to the House, so it appears well on its way to becoming law, possibly the first of its kind in the country.

Another way to foil these schemes is to jam cellphone signals, so even prisoners who sneak phones behind bars can't place orders.

"I want to make a cellphone no more valuable than a brick in an inmate's hands," Stirling said.

But a federal law from 1934 says that only the federal government can interfere with public airwaves, not the states. So eight governors, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, sent the feds a letter urging them to reconsider.

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory was not one of the eight.

In the meantime, states are allowed to use different technology called "managed access," which blocks some phones. Prison officials said it's more expensive and less effective than the technology that blocks all signals.

North Carolina is already taking bids to do that at two high-security prisons, including one in the Charlotte area -- Lanesboro Correctional. The other is Scotland Correctional in Laurinburg.

South Carolina is considering doing the same.

"This is a problem that is continuing and getting worse," Stirling said. "We're doing a lot of things to stop it, but it is very difficult. You know, our fences are only so high."