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Drones are dropping contraband into prisons. NC is looking for ways to stop them.

This drone was found crashed inside the fence of a prison in central North Carolina in 2015. It was carrying a cellphone and other contraband. Prison officials found the package before it made its way to inmates.
This drone was found crashed inside the fence of a prison in central North Carolina in 2015. It was carrying a cellphone and other contraband. Prison officials found the package before it made its way to inmates. N.C. DPS

Jimmy Causey, an inmate at a South Carolina maximum security prison, waited until the Fourth of July fireworks were in full swing before he used a pair of wire cutters to snip through four fences on his way to freedom.

A dummy he had fashioned out of cloth and tucked into bed fooled the guards long enough to give Causey an 18-hour head start last summer. Three days later, the Texas Rangers found him holed up in an Austin hotel room with a shotgun, a pistol, four cellphones and nearly $50,000 in cash.

As if this story weren’t Hollywood enough, the South Carolina Department of Corrections says it was a drone drop that gave Causey the wire cutters.

Though drone drops in prison yards are far from epidemic, they’ve caused enough trouble to give law enforcement pause, and facilities all over the world are investing in anti-drone technologies. Drops of drugs and cellphones have sparked prison riots in Ohio, and four drones have been sighted by North Carolina prisons, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

In the wake of Causey’s escape, the North Carolina prison system has turned to Duke professor Missy Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot and international expert on drones. Cummings plans to develop a system of specialized microphones that will “hear” drones coming and alert prison officials that dangerous contraband may be on the way.

Missy Cummings is a professor at Duke University. Contributed photo

“I guess a worst-case scenario is that a gun could get dropped in there,” Cummings said. “Totally doable — guns don’t weigh that much more than a couple of cellphones and some hashish.”

The name of the game is to detect, not defend. “Our prison systems don’t have the money to buy a million-dollar laser to start firing things out of the sky,” Cummings said, adding the Federal Aviation Administration would probably frown on such a practice.

Instead, Cummings envisions a system of microphones that would listen for the acoustic signature of a flying drone. Though drones are getting quieter, the devices used by most contraband smugglers aren't top-of-the-line models.

“They’re like flying weed-eaters,” Cummings said. “Criminals aren’t going to pay the $100,000 to get the Whisper Jet, military-grade drone.”

The plan is to have an app-based alert system tied into the acoustic detectors. “You basically get a notification that pulls up Google Maps (and) shows you where the drone is,” Cummings said. “Then you can decide what to do.”

From there, it’s just a matter of intercepting the package before it gets into the hands of inmates. And that’s a lot easier than you’d expect. “The good news is that our best-skilled pilots are not on the wrong side of the law here,” Cummings said.

Smugglers tend to bungle drone drops, sometimes sending the devices into the waiting arms of guards. That's what happened in all three successful drone drops in North Carolina prisons, said Loris Sutton, who works with the security accountability section of the state Department of Public Safety.

In all three successful drone drops, “the contraband was collected by staff before inmates gained access,” Sutton said. In one case, a drone got tangled in a piece of heating and cooling equipment before crashing into an area inaccessible to prisoners.

Once guards have the contraband, and maybe even the drone, in hand, it’s time to apprehend the pilot. There are high-end drones with long-range control and video feed that allow pilots to fly drones from miles away. Average smugglers don't use those, officials say.

“But what they would be doing is getting a (mid range) for a couple hundred bucks off the web, getting some night vision goggles and thinking they’ve got their own little raid,” Cummings said. “That we can do a lot with.”

Since they have to maintain line-of-sight, drone pilots are usually apprehended a stone’s throw from the prison yard — much like traditionalist smugglers who chuck contraband over the fence under the cover of night.

“It’s just amazing to me how many people are willing to sneak up to a maximum security prison to try to throw things over the wire,” Cummings said. “If we can detect people, then we can solve two problems.”

It's crucial to prevent drone-dropped contraband from reaching inmates, Sutton said. "A weapon would provide inmates with the ability to create an insurrection, escape or (worse)."

Jimmy Causey Photo provided by the Williamson County, TX, Detention Center

Meanwhile, Jimmy Causey is back in custody at an undisclosed maximum security facility in South Carolina. The 2017 escape wasn’t Causey’s first jailbreak — he fled another maximum security prison in 2005, when he pulled the same dummy gag with toilet paper and rode a trash container out of the facility.

Inmates like Causey will always be looking for the latest and greatest technology to help their escape, Cummings said. Drones may be in vogue today, but who knows what James Bond gadgetry will be next?