11 drone sightings threaten Michigan prison security

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Updated, 4:58 p.m. on March 20

Almost a dozen drones were sighted near or over state prisons between 2017 and 2018, according to information obtained by the Michigan Advance, in part through an open records request.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Drones carrying drugs, cell phones or potentially weapons are the latest security threat for state prisons, experts say. In addition to being cheaper than in the past, the newest models come with grave security concerns. Consumer drones can be flown with cell phones, or programmed in advance with precise GPS coordinates, and are capable of heavier payloads than before.

After a string of drone sightings near Ionia prisons led to the 2017 arrest of three individuals attempting to deliver contraband, the Legislature passed a package of bills in 2018 making it illegal to fly a drone near state prisons or local jails.

But newer drone features fuel concern among prison officials and corrections workers that inmates could get their hands on weapons or escape tools in addition to drugs, prison security experts told the Advance.

Department of Corrections | Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) confirmed one case in 2017 in which a drone sneaked contraband behind walls. The aerial delivery of cell phones, tobacco and marijuana went undetected for nearly two months.

The issue is not unique to Michigan.

“There are more cell phones in a prison then there are in a college sorority house,” said Kevin Tamez, managing partner for the New Jersey-based security counseling firm MPM Group. “That’s a major issue now that you can direct drones with cell phones. Now you got a problem.”

Tamez argues that the best way to stop drones is to give state and federal prisons the authority to jam cell phone and drone signals, which could halt flying drones. A federal prohibition on state facilities’ use of such technology should be overturned, the security expert said, although that raises civil liberties concerns.

“I’m afraid that somebody’s gonna drop a weapon … and some correctional officer’s gonna pay the price,” he said.

Three arrested

The 2018 Michigan law was passed after three people were arrested in 2017 for using a drone to deliver three cell phones, razors and marijuana to the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility.

Jonathan Roundtree | Department of Corrections

That was the first and only time in Michigan history in which the pilots and driver were arrested at the crime scene.

Patrick Corey Seaton Jr., Jonathan Larawn Roundtree and Daryl Steven Marshall were found in court to be behind another successful delivery that went undetected for two months, and a similar attempt at a prison in Carson City.

All three pleaded guilty to various charges stemming from the incidents and were sentenced in 2018.

Seaton, 23, is on parole after pleading guilty to two counts of delivering contraband to a prisoner. Roundtree, 34, is serving up to 26 years in prison related to the delivery and another 32-and-a-half years for other crimes.

Marshall is serving up to 15 years in prison from the same delivery.

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Drone sightings near prisons have fell precipitously since the three were sentenced, state data shows.

But the potential for drones to drop weapons into prison yards and fly away without being detected is still worrisome for prison officers.

“Well, it’s a major safety concern for us,” said Anita Lloyd, a spokeswoman for Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing prison officers. “When there’s a drone sighted over a prison, that stops most operations until the yard can be searched to make sure it didn’t drop any dangerous contraband.”

More drones, more problems

For prisons, drones present the alarming new possibility of bringing the outside world within arm’s reach.

In 11 drone sightings that took place after the sole known successful contraband delivery in Michigan, none have led to arrests.

Chris Gautz

And none have — as far as law enforcement knows — introduced new, unscreened packages within prison walls, according to DOC spokesman Chris Gautz and Michigan State Police Lt. Christian Clute.

But Clute said there are likely more attempts and even deliveries that remain unknown to authorities because of the ease with which contraband can be delivered remotely.

The specter of drones has raised nationwide concern.

An infamous hacker in a Louisiana federal prison allegedly ran a drone smuggling ring from his cell, according to federal authorities. Other prisons have also faced issues, including in South Carolina, Maryland and Ohio.

A majority of Michigan drone sightings, which the Advance learned of through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, took place in 2017 at various state prisons in Ionia. But sightings have occurred throughout the state.

Four drones also were spotted flying near or over Michigan prisons in 2018, MDOC records show.

Clute, a former state detective who investigated drone issues in the Ionia area, is now assistant post commander at the Lakeview Post. He says state police treat every sighting near a prison as a potential crime.

“You could write them all off as hobbyists, and then we would certainly not be doing the prison any justice,” Clute said.

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Security concerns

To address the potential security threat, prisons have established drills meant to prepare officers to spot drones in the sky and sweep prison yards for any potential contraband, according to Gautz of the DOC.

Photo by Thomas Hawk, Flickr

Michigan State Police also have coordinated with corrections staff to fly their own drones over state prisons — sometimes announced and other times, without warning — so officers can train for the real thing.

Gautz said they even run drills in the middle of the night, waking prisoners from their sleep.

During drills or sightings, prison staff will bring prisoners back inside to comb the yard for potential packages, Gautz said.

This “disrupts operations” and leaves prisoners “disgruntled” after being forced back inside when “we’d rather have them out,” he continued.

But new security measures can also lead to harsher treatment for prisoners in the name of keeping guards and inmates safe, a prisoner rights group says.

Alejo Stark, spokesman for a prisoner rights group called Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS), said that’s just one way in which officials continually clamp down on inmates.

“It would seem obvious that the prison officials and the state would not want the security threat. But it has to be contextualized in the broader clampdown on prisoner communications, as well,” Stark said.

Alejo Stark

Stark, who advocates to abolish prisons, argued that the security problem from drones is overblown and distracts from the fact that 38,827 prisoners remained behind bars as of June 2018, the most recent data available.

“Hunting down the drones — it is a very spectacular way of saying, ‘We’re doing everything we can to keep our guards safe,’ while everything else stays the same,” Stark said.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that prisoner mail was rerouted through a private company after a 2017 Upper Peninsula prison riot. Michigan prisons do not use a private company for physical mail. The Michigan Department of Corrections has contracted a private company for prisoner email and telephone services since 2009. The article also has been updated to accurately reflect the current number of Michigan prisoners. The previous version relied on an outdated MDOC report.  

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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