Over the Fence

08.01.14

What Was This Drone Doing Over a South Carolina Prison?

It was a high-tech attempt to smuggle in drugs and phones from the skies over a maximum-security facility. Officials are hunting for the pilot—and ways to fight a growing problem.

Like something out of a military conspiracy theorist’s Orange Is the New Black fan fiction, a contraband-smuggling drone was found outside the fence of a maximum-security prison this year, according to officials who disclosed the finding on Wednesday.

The drone was found April 21 carrying cellphones, marijuana, and tobacco. It was apparently trying to make it over a 12-foot razor-wire fence into Lee Correctional Institution, a men’s prison in Bishopville, South Carolina, when it either malfunctioned or was crashed by the person piloting it.

One man, a 28-year-old named Brenton Lee Doyle, has been arrested and charged with both attempting to smuggle contraband into a prison and drug possession (bafflingly, he had a stash of flunitrazepam, a.k.a. “roofies” on him, too). A second suspect is being sought. Video surveillance footage from a convenience store in the area before the drone crash has provided images of that suspect: a white male wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. The public is encouraged to come forward with any information about the suspect.

Doyle’s connection to the prison—and whom he and his partner are accused of aiming to deliver to on the inside—is under investigation, according to South Carolina Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens. Doyle, who appeared in court for a hearing Wednesday, claims to have never seen a drone before and accuses police of failing to mention it when they arrested him, according to his attorney, Wayne Floyd.

Because of the investigation, Givens couldn’t disclose what type of drone was found or what part of the prison it was found near (according to the Associated Press, “officials aren’t sure exactly where the drone would have gone if it had made it over the wall”).

Bizarre as the story is, it’s not the first time a drone has been caught trying to sneak contraband into a prison. Four people were arrested last November for attempting to deliver several pounds of tobacco into Georgia’s Calhoun State Prison. They were found camped in the woods, armed with binoculars, flying a small helicopter. That drone’s cargo actually made it inside the prison’s gates.

Cellphones at the prison have proven particularly lethal: In 2010, a prisoner used a smuggled cellphone to coordinate a hit on a corrections officer, who was shot six times at his home.

“As the technology spreads, these kinds of things are going to become more and more common,” says Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Getting your hands on a drone is now as simple as ordering one online (here’s a $100 Sharper Image version) or building your own, making dumb criminal plots like sneaking a few smokes into prison fairly inevitable. Of course, as Singer notes, “Smuggling things that are contraband at a prison is not a national security emergency.”

It makes for an dangerous situation for Lee Correctional Institution, however. Cellphones at the prison have proven particularly lethal: In 2010, a prisoner used a smuggled cellphone to coordinate a hit on a corrections officer, who was shot six times at his home. And last year, prison riots and two prisoner takeovers (also coordinated with contraband cellphones, resulting in the capture of two outnumbered prison officers, one of whom was stabbed) led to a call for funds to solve problems like unsealed vents, which were often used for passing contraband between prison cells, and to build extra security towers to help prevent contraband from being thrown over the fence. Givens mentions a need for new ways of “fighting back” as smuggling plots become increasingly high-tech—lives actually depend on it.