SC Department of Corrections launches anti-drone strategies as problem worsens

SCDC has already made the investments, but it took years to get them in place
Published: Aug. 17, 2023 at 6:23 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2023 at 7:01 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It’s taken years, but the South Carolina Department of Corrections has finally implemented a new drone detection technology as part of a “multi-layered” effort to cut down on the threat of drone “attacks.”

“It’s not just one thing. It is a combination of things. It’s technology. It’s human capital. It’s investing in what we need to invest in to stop these drones from coming in and stop the contraband,” SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said.

The problem surfaced a few years ago and even prompted the passage of a law in South Carolina, criminalizing the act of operating a drone near a state prison without explicit permission.

The National Institute of Justice issued an advisory report in June on the concern of the “growing capabilities of drones that can deliver contraband into a facility.” It also addresses the legal and technical barriers that still exist in correctional facilities’ efforts to protect against them.

“This is a national problem. This is in state prisons. This is in federal prisons. It’s very dangerous,” Stirling said.

READ MORE: ‘This is a war’: Drone-delivered contraband on the rise in South Carolina prisons

The tech called “Dedrone” is operated by artificial intelligence and alerts prison officials when drones enter their restricted airspace.

It can also track flight paths and locate where the device launched.

It’s the same tech used by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division during Bridge Run last year.

It cost $240,000 to implement at four institutions as well as a mobile unit but this was paid well before the program launched in late spring of this year.

They plan to expand to four more.

“The likelihood of [pilots] being watched and caught has gone up exponentially,” Stirling said.

The department’s drone team has also expanded and has between 20-25 members. They are used to counter-surveil the area, find hidden contraband drops on roofs and in hard-to-find places and assist in searches with local law enforcement.

Another hurdle to overcome in connection to the drone issue is illegal cell phones.

“Contraband’s been a part of prison since they’ve had prisons, but cell phones make it so much easier to coordinate,” Stirling said.

Drone drops are believed to be coordinated, in part, by illegal cellphones.
Drone drops are believed to be coordinated, in part, by illegal cellphones.(Live 5)

The department has lobbied Congress unsuccessfully for years to jam these devices because the Federal Communications Commission outright bans the practice.

But it did recently launch a work around and reports early successes, with hundreds of contraband phones rendered unusable at Lee Correctional earlier this year.

The strategies are relatively new, so it’s unclear how well they’re working.

But Stirling remains optimistic.

“We are definitely catching more contraband. We’re catching more contraband at the front gate. We’re catching more drones than I’ve seen,” he said.

SCDC reports 735 sightings of drones at its institutions since 2019 and 198 this year alone.
SCDC reports 735 sightings of drones at its institutions since 2019 and 198 this year alone.(Live 5)

Each year, that number has increased significantly as drones have become more accessible to be used to fuel lucrative contraband market.

“It’s gotten worse,” Stirling said.

Prison officials believe this year will continue to break records.

Lowcountry facilities, Lieber and Ridgeland continue to have the most activity.

Multiple arrests related to attempted drone drops since January
Multiple arrests related to attempted drone drops since January(Live 5)

SCDC reports 11 individuals have been arrested since the start of the year in connection with drone drops, with one as recently as Wednesday.

Authorities also say two have been caught more than once.

Joshua Jordan of Summerville is one of those people. In May, authorities arrested him after they say they saw him

attempting to fly two bags of tobacco into Lee Correctional.

Last year, Jordan was arrested outside of Lieber Correctional in January for an illegal drone drop where the device crashed into a prison yard. According to arrest warrants, correctional staff found more than 500 grams of marijuana and tobacco respectively, as well as hacksaw blades and lighters intended for prisoners inside.

“This doesn’t only affect... inside the prison, it affects folks outside,” Stirling said. “We’ve got a lieutenant here who is doing a very good job at finding contraband and they tried to burn his house down in Summerville.”

In that case, it was Jordan who was charged with attempted arson and later released on a $200,000 bond.

The detection tech was launched around the time authorities caught Jordan and it was able to detect that he had used the same drone each time he was arrested.

It is important to note, drones are not the only way contraband can get into the hands of prisoners, it can also come from visitors and staff.

At least six former employees have also been charged for providing contraband to prisoners in 2023.