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Federal Bureau of Prisons

Federal prison officers worry that drones might airlift inmates to freedom

Over the last couple of years, we have seen many stories of drones dropping contraband into prisons. However, the concerns about drones do not stop there. In a recent report, the Department of Justice (DoJ) expresses concerns that someday drones might airlift inmates to freedom.

Federal prison officers worry that drones might airlift inmates to freedom

The Department of Justice (DoJ) report provides an overview of how prison track and mitigate the threat posed by unmanned aircraft. A large part of the report addresses concerns about the bureaucracy involved when reporting drone incidents, as well as, identifying and implementing counter-drone technology.

The report states that:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP) faces significant and growing challenges to protect its facilities from drone threats. Drones have been used to deliver contraband to inmates, and could also be used to surveil institutions, facilitate escape attempts, or transport dangerous weapons such as firearms or explosives.

The specific findings in the report released include:

  • Enhanced Drone Incident Tracking Is Needed. In 2018, the BOP began to formally track drone incidents at its federal facilities. While the BOP’s data reflects a growth in reported incidents from 23 in 2018 to 57 in 2019, we believe this number likely underreports the number of drone incidents. We found that the BOP could improve its tracking of drone incidents by clarifying its reporting policy for federal facilities, as well as taking steps to comprehensively track drone incidents at its contract facilities. Improved tracking will allow the BOP to better determine the extent of the threat posed by drones and identify areas of highest risk.
  • Improving Drone Response Guidance. Recent flight restrictions and other legal authorities gained from 2018 to 2019 will help DOJ combat the drone threat at BOP facilities. However, delays in finalizing Department-level guidance on implementing DOJ authorities to counter drones has hampered the BOP’s ability to propose and receive approval for deploying counter-drone measures and train its staff.
  • Identifying and Obtaining Protective Solutions. DOJ faces several challenges in its ongoing evaluation of solutions suitable to secure BOP facilities from drone threats. These include identifying appropriate technologies, verifying that they deliver on promised capabilities, and assessing the cost and benefits of these purchases. Given the limited resources available to the BOP and the rapid evolution of technology, continued collaboration both within DOJ and among other federal agencies will be essential to addressing these challenges and protecting BOP facilities from drone threats.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

So far drones have mostly been used to smuggle contraband into federal prisons. The report shows one example in which a DJI Matrice 600 (see photo above) “was recovered at a BoP facility with a package containing 20 cell phones, 23 vials of injectable drugs, dozens of syringes, and multiple packages of tobacco, among other contraband items.” However, prison officials worry that in the future drones might be used to launch attacks or even airlift an inmate out of prison.

As drone technology evolves, BoP officials told us that future devices may even have payload capabilities that could allow for the lifting of an adult out of a prison. Given trends in both the industry and observed incidents involving drones at prisons, the threat posed by drones to BoP facilities will likely increase as drone technology continues to advance.

Now the kind of drone that would be able to airlift an adult out of prison would be expensive, large, and loud. Hardly the kind of tool that would allow for a swift and quiet getaway. A big reason that drones are often used to smuggle contraband into prisons is that unmanned aircraft capable of performing these tasks are cheap and can easily be bought by anybody off-the-shelf from a local retailer or online store.

While being skeptical about the effectiveness, the DoJ is looking to invest in and expand its counter-drone technologies. Working together with the BoP, the DoJ is ‘in the early stages of researching and evaluating a multitude of technologies and solutions offering both affirmative use and counter-drone capabilities.’ According to the Verge, the BoP was granted $5.2M by the federal government in February 2020 to acquire drone “detection and mitigation systems,” but it says it needs more.

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