Dozens of drones have been spotted near Virginia prisons. At least one was carrying drugs.
By MARIE ALBIGES | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 12, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — In late August, as security staff was leaving Buckingham Correctional Center, they found a small white drone sitting on the side of the road with a package attached to it.
They were told by a shift commander to leave it alone since it was outside the prison's perimeter and called Virginia State Police, who found $500 worth of marijuana, an eight ball of cocaine, a cell phone, three SIM cards and a handcuff key.
That was one of 33 drone sightings near prisons since January 2018, according to Virginia Department of Corrections data obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Contraband was found only in one case. But drones have been used increasingly to smuggle drugs and other contraband into correctional facilities as the technology becomes more readily available and affordable, said Phil Pitsky, the vice president of U.S. federal operations for Dedrone, a company that sells drone detection software.
Four of the 33 drone sightings were near Buckingham Correctional Center or its neighbor Dillwyn Correctional Center, which are about 90 minutes west of Richmond and together have over 2,000 prisoners.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said charges are pending in the August incident – the 14th of the year, and the only one this year or last in which suspected drugs were found.
'No. 1 concern'
The number of reported sightings is probably lower than the amount of drones flying around prisons, Pitsky said.
In the past, Dedrone's systems have typically detected two to three times the number of drones that had been reported, he said. The firm has worked with corrections departments in Kentucky, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
In most of the 33 Virginia sightings – which occurred at 15 of the state's 27 "major institutions" – security staff spotted the drones flying around. But Pitsky said that doesn't account for any drones flying at night, which is prohibited by federal law.
Pitsky said most of the time, the drones are carrying suspected drugs and contraband that they drop in the facilities' courtyards for prisoners.
"That is the number one concern," he said. "Things that are getting into the prison that shouldn't be."
At one point in September 2018, officers at Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville spotted six drones flying at once over the prison in different directions.
Pitsky said if the drones aren't dropping off packages, they're likely scoping the area with a camera, appearing at different times to monitor guard locations and shift changes.
In 22 of the reported Virginia sightings, no contraband was found, according to the state's data. Some of the reports provided to the Pilot did not say whether any contraband was found.
But the drones weren't found or searched in any of those cases, aside from the Buckingham incident. After most sightings, guards swept the perimeter of the facility or the area where the drone was spotted. In some instances, the local police or sheriff's office was notified of the sighting.
Geller said it's up to the facility to notify the state police of any drone sightings. Corrections department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said drone sightings are reported "like any other DOC incident, and investigated."
But she said there's no way for the department to keep drones out of the airspace surrounding the prisons.
"We are absolutely concerned about drones," she wrote in an email. "They have the potential to drop drugs, weapons, and other contraband onto facility grounds, endangering everyone there."
Gaps in the law
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates drones and restricts airspace in areas such as airports and military bases. You can't operate one without registering it, and you can't fly one over groups of people without their knowledge.
There are currently around 29,000 people registered to fly drones recreationally in Virginia, according to FAA data.
The state has its own limits on top of the federal ones. Virginia law says registered sex offenders can't use a drone to follow or contact someone without their permission, and you can't use a drone to trespass on someone's property to peep or spy into a building. It also says localities can't regulate the use of a privately owned drone.
And Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, got a law passed this year that makes it a misdemeanor to violate any FAA flight restrictions when taking off or landing a drone.
But there's nothing in the state code about flying drones over prisons or jails, and the FAA only bans them over federal prisons.
Tom McMahon, who works with the Arlington-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said it's already illegal in Virginia for prisoners to have controlled substances, guns or other weapons or for anyone to deliver those things to a prisoner, so passing a law that bans people from using drones to do so would be repetitive.
"There's really not a need to have a law that singles out drones for delivering contraband to a prison," said McMahon, who serves as senior vice president of advocacy and government relations.
But several states passed such laws, even though the power to control airspace rests in the hands of the FAA.
In 2018, California made it illegal to operate an unmanned aircraft system on or above the grounds of a state prison or jail. Florida and Kentucky passed similar laws this year.
To avoid impeding on the FAA's jurisdiction, Georgia's General Assembly passed a law this year that explicitly bans contraband delivered to prisons by drone.
"The state just felt they needed to make a stronger statement about the fact that it's illegal," McMahon said.
The FAA is working toward accepting petitions to restrict or prohibit drone operations over "critical infrastructure" – any publicly or privately owned system vital to security, public health or safety like oil production, emergency services, airports and electric power generation – but McMahon said that process has been delayed until September.
Virginia has been trying to curb drug and contraband smugglers in other ways. In September, the corrections department announced it was tightening its visitation policy by limiting the number of people on each prisoner's visitor list and how often someone can be added.
The change comes after one prisoner died and several were hospitalized after overdosing at the Haynesville Correctional Center in June. The DOC did not release information on what drug the prisoners are believed to have ingested or how they got the drugs.
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