While drone delivery services are certainly on the agendas of large retailers like Amazon, inmates in jails across the U.S. are already using drones to receive their own aerial contraband shipments. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed that there have been many attempts over the past five years to transport contraband to prisoners in the U.S. from mobile phones, to drugs, and even pornography. State facilities have also reported similar incidents over the years. Drone expert and drone legislation advocate, Troy Rule, of Arizona State University, says, “Civilian drones are becoming inexpensive, easy to operate and powerful. A growing number of criminals seem to be recognizing their potential value as tools for bad deeds.” And the problem is that current anti-drone technologies fail to protect prisons against these drone deliveries. While smuggling contraband into prison through any method violates federal law, no statute currently prohibits drones from flying near correctional facilities (aside from some newly implemented local laws) – this is yet another loophole in the legislation layout of drone laws.

According to some of the DOJ documents, an inmate in a high-security prison in Victorville, California recruited someone to smuggle in two cell phones using a drone in March 2015. Officials at that prison did not discover the cell phones for five months. Similar incidents occurred at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana, and the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas. Last year, an inmate who had been released from Maryland’s Western Correctional Institution (and his two accomplices) were convicted of smuggling drugs and pornography into the prison via drone. Some information was withheld by the DOJ in response to the FOIA request due to privacy and security concerns and issues.

Spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, Justin Long, said, “The threat posed by drones to introduce contraband into prison and for other means is increasing.” Long said that the Bureau of Prisons is working with the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies to develop new counter-measures to keep contraband by drone delivery out of prisons. The threat posed by these drone deliveries is much greater than the traditional smuggling of contraband by hiding it in bodily cavities because drones can transport much bigger and more dangerous items like guns into the prison facilities.