A package of contraband covered in grass clippings that was dropped by a drone at a Panhandle prison is one of the most recent examples of inmates using advanced technology to smuggle illegal items behind prison walls.
Authorities are investigating two confirmed drone drops at Florida prisons in the last 30 days. One of those drops was discovered at a Panhandle prison after correctional officers spotted the drone, which was delivering a cellphone and tobacco.
The Florida Department of Corrections declined to specify at which institution the drop happened and would only confirm it happened at a prison in the Northwest region of the state.
But FDC said using drones to smuggle contraband into prisons is a growing problem.
“We know that drones are a real issue,” FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said earlier this week, adding that aside from the two confirmed sighting, there have been several other suspected drone-related drops.
A drone incidents factsheet provided by the department says the drone was observed by a correctional officer, who saw it successfully deliver contraband inside of the prison.
The correctional officers immediately responded to the area where the drone was spotted and found the package, which contained a cellphone with accessories such as chargers, earbuds and a SIM card, and several grams of tobacco.
The package was covered with dead grass clipping in an apparent attempt to camouflage or conceal the package.
Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said he was made aware of the drone issue during recent tours of area facilities. Broxson recently told the News Journal that he has spent the last several months touring prisons across the state to try to find a way to curb a recent spike in inmate deaths.
He said he has learned drugs and other contraband often lead to violence inside the prisons, either through the erratic behavior that drug use can cause or through issues like gangs or debts.
“It’s really a high-tech operation and the fact they’re obviously coordinating with people outside to drop these items is scary,” Broxson said.
Glady, the FDC spokeswoman, said drone usage is plaguing prisons across the nation, and most corrections departments are trying to keep up with new technology.
“We’ve had two confirmed sightings this year, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but in years past, it was completely unheard of,” she said.
Lawmakers proposed legislation at this year’s session that would have added prisons and county jails to the list of sites where drone usage is prohibited, but those bills did not pass.
Both Senate Bill 624 and House Bill 471 successfully went through multiple subcommittees before dying and being withdrawn from consideration March 10.
Assistant State Attorney James Parker, who primarily covers Santa Rosa County where Santa Rosa Correctional Institution and Blackwater River Correctional Institution are located, said he is aware of cases across the state where drones have dropped contraband, but his office is not currently investigating of those any cases.
He said if a case does come forward, his office would aggressively pursue a conviction under the charge of introducing contraband into a correctional facility.
Parker said the most common items dropped by drones are drugs or cellphones, and smuggling those would lead to a second-degree felony charge that could carry up to a 15-year sentence.
“It doesn’t matter what means you use, whether it’s high tech or an unsophisticated manner, they all come under that same statute,” Parker said.
Glady said the department foresees some issues in investigating drone smuggling operations because it can be difficult to determine contraband was dropped by a drone unless correctional officers spot the device in action. Also, a drone operator does not need to be close by to work the device.
Glady said any drone-related contraband cases will be investigated by the department’s Office of the Inspector General and forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8680.
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