Drones used to drop contraband and surveil federal prisons

Here are some of the highlights from an interview by Tom Temin from the Federal News Network with Inspector General Michael Horowitz from the Justice Department.

Drones used to drop contraband and surveil federal prisons

IG Michael Horowitz on some recent drone incidents.

Yeah, we’ve seen several because we have responsibility. My law enforcement agents have responsibility for dealing with these incidents along with the Bureau of Prisons’s law enforcement components. And we’ve seen many over the years. I think probably the most stark example of that is one that is currently under charges arising out of a Fort Dix federal prison facility where we started observing with the BOP multiple drone incidents from 2018 to this year, there were at least seven drone deliveries during that time period, there could have been more — we’ve documented at least seven with the BOP. And over that time period, those various intercepted drone drops resulted in collection of marijuana, steroids, over 160 cell phones, 150 SIM cards, 74 cell phone batteries and chargers, 35 syringes and two metal sawblades. That’s from the seven incidents that were intercepted over that two year period. And just to give you a sense of how drones can deliver large batches of contraband just in one incident, one of those seven incidents, the most recent that resulted in the arrests in March of 2020. One drone was identified as having dropped 34 cell phones, nine chargers, 51 SIM cards and other telephone equipment. That’s all from one drone alone. And you can see what the seven did over time.

Drones used to drop contraband and surveil federal prisons - Two men arrested after trying to fly drugs into prison with DJI Phantom 3 drone

On drones being used to conduct surveillance missions of federal prisons, Horowitz said:

You know if you go and just look at drones and see what the availability is, they are very inexpensive now, they are very small. They have cameras that are very good cameras nowadays. And aerial photography of a prison, obviously, is a significant concern.

The number of recorded drone incidents has gone up significantly since reporting started. The actual number is expected to be even higher.

What we saw is that the prisons began tracking the number of incidents in 2018. And so although we said the first instance occurred in 2015, if you look at what they had before 2018, they had one incident recorded in 2015. None in 2016 and two and 2017. As soon as they started recording them in 2018, the number jumped to 23. And in the following year in 2019, it jumped to 57. You can see what these numbers look like to see it’s not only an emerging threat, but as we did our work, it became clear that the potential for significant underreporting, we think those numbers are likely significantly underreporting the number of incidents because up through 2019, the BOP had several challenges in reporting the information, among them the decentralized nature of the reporting, the guidance issues, and it being unclear, for example, how you recorded an incident, if you saw a drone to your point about in question about aerial photography, if you saw a drone flying near a prison or over prison, but not dropping anything down, is that an incident you record or don’t record?

About the legalities around counter-drone measures Horowitz said the following:

It is, and there are some very tricky legal issues that go with this because drones are aircraft under the law. And so it not only requires the Justice Department to think about these issues and address these issues, it requires them to work closely with the FAA to consider what authorities are available, and how they can move forward to counterman these drones. Congress in 2018 passed legislation giving the department and the Attorney General certain authorities to take certain actions. And the department has issued guidance this year on how to implement those authorities. But because there are laws to protect the aircraft, and given the drones are aircraft, there needs to be some clear legal guidance from the department to avoid civil or other liability that could arise from say, taking out a drone that’s trying to drop contraband in the prison.

You can’t simply shoot a drone down, Horowitz explains.

But there’s also the law that prohibits individuals without other legal authority to simply shoot down a drone or take out a drone. So that’s where the guidance has to come in, and where training and understanding has to come in because you can’t expect with 30,000 plus BOP employees, many of them at these hundred plus facilities across the country, to on their own understand this. That’s where it’s very important for the department to get that information out there so that people can take appropriate and lawful actions to stop these drones from interfering with the operations of prisons.

Apart from the BOP, other parts of the department’s law enforcement components, in particular, DEA, FBI, ATF, the Marshal Service have an interest in the potential law enforcement use of drones as well.

You can read the entire article here.

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